2.4: Samaritan

The Vainasse Principle: First penned by elven researcher Antonio Vainasse, it is the idea that magic which reproduces a physical phenomenon does not ipso facto behave like that phenomenon. Magic can make fireballs that don’t “burn” the way that a real physical fire would “burn” an object. Magic does not necessarily obey the laws of physics which apply to “physical” phenomena, even when such phenomena are reproduced by magic. As such magic can be rated by its proximity or distance to physical realism, in gradual steps; but unreal magic is not necessarily weaker or less complicated than realistic magic. A completely accurate representation of a physical object or phenomena generated entirely by magic is said to be “Vainasse Perfect.”

In the modern era, many pieces of magic once thought to be Vainasse Perfect have been found by science to be missing something in physical law, and been discredited. No magic is currently believed to be Vainasse Perfect under serious scientific scrutiny.


Lyudmilla and the Samaritan bumped fists to seal their compact.

“I’m no ‘concerned citizen,’ but if it’s these guys, I’ll kick their asses pro bono.”

“Whatever your intention, a donation is a donation. I appreciate it.”

Lyudmilla did not quite know what she was getting herself into at the time.

She had stalked evil men in the night before and made sure they never got home.

She had seen, and done, so much more than she sometimes even comprehended.

Whenever she remembered it, it was all so selective, so out of control.

It was like her whole life had happened to her rather than under her direction.

A different place, different world; maybe even a different her. All she had were flashes.

There was no use thinking about it at such a level. She shook her head; it was actually simpler. If she didn’t want to walk away with a black eye, then she had to give one. That was easier than contracts and targets; that was easier than wars and soldiers. When you walked into a dark alley, sometimes you punched your way out, and that was it.

It was the fascists who had come out in this alley, and they would leave without teeth.

“Lets get moving.” The Samaritan said. “They have a bunch of guys all around here.”

“Are they communicating?” Lyudmilla asked. “Will they know about these losers?”

She pointed at the men dropped face-down around the fountain and hedge.

The Samaritan shook her head. “I don’t think they’re talking. We can’t be sure, but these guys aren’t very organized, or at least, they haven’t been in the past.”

“How are they not organized? They’ve got uniforms, patches; a flag!”

“In my experience, all they’re capable of is ganging up and terrorizing helpless people.”

She turned from Lyudmilla and started walking out of the fountain square.

Lyudmilla felt that maybe the Samaritan wasn’t getting the changes in the fascist modus operandi that seemed to be evident here, but she did not push it any further.

Ahead of them, the expanse of the park seemed to loom large and oppressive.

Though she had come here in the past, Lyudmilla had never had cause to examine Eisenbern park with any degree of detail. Hedges a little under two meters tall walled off the breadth of the park space, encircling the area save for a few entrances and exits, beyond which magic walls likely laid now. A winding white-tiled path flanked by flower beds, bright green grassy fields and great lumbering trees, connected statues, gazebos, benches, fountains and concrete podiums into one continuous space.

And yet, as far as Lyudmilla could see from her vantage, she also felt like she couldn’t possibly know what lay ahead. She could not see a soul walking in the park, despite her awareness that there were Iron Flag thugs patrolling it. When she tried to focus on the space ahead of her, there was something elusive about it in her vision, as if she was staring into a mirror that had gotten just fogged enough after a quick hot shower to distort the picture ever so slightly. Something was wrong; something was hidden.

“I don’t know what kind of spell they put in place.” Samaritan said. “But we should–“

“It was a labyrinth.” Lyudmilla said, cutting her off.

“Oh! You’ve done some homework!”

The Samaritan did not seem disturbed or put off by Lyudmilla’s interruption.

Behind her mask, Lyudmilla could tell she was smiling again.

She raised a finger and spoke in a matter-of-fact sort of voice.

“Large and complicated spells usually have focal points, like wi-fi extenders in a big house, that project the spell through the space. A maze spell like this usually has specific dimensions, like walls and rooms. In this case, a maze was superimposed on the park, so the walls are invisible. I’ve been running into a lot of walls, which is why I can’t progress. If we move carelessly, we’ll touch a ‘wall’ and end up back at this fountain. So we need to find the path that will take around the maze’s focal points.”

Lyudmilla simply nodded her head. She had no experience or learning in this arena.

“Well, you seem to know what you’re doing, so you lead.” She said, shrugging.

Behind her mask, the Samaritan was smiling cheek to cheek once again.

“I’ve done this before, you could say. Though not at quite this scale.”

“Yeah I’m sure you’ve had tons of adventures.” Lyudmilla shrugged.

“Plug these numbers into a browser page on your Homunculus while we walk.”

She handed Lyudmilla a piece of paper with what looked like an IP address.

Then she started forward, toward the white-tiled path.

Suddenly, the Samaritan vanished from Lyudmilla’s sight for a few seconds.

“God, it’s so granular. Everything is a wall except really narrow paths. Whoever put this here is, beyond being fascist, a fucking a-hole. We can’t just brute force our way here.”

She reappeared behind Lyudmilla, back at the fountain. One wrong step was all it took.

Nodding, Lyudmilla input the numbers into the homunculus’ built-in web browser.

A bare-bones page came up, basically a bulletin board style list of messages gathered up in a white text on black background four-celled table layout. Each line had the title of the thread in question, a username, and two timestamps for when it was created and responded to. There were only a few threads, each of them asking for some kind of help. Most of the requests were simple and harmless, but there was one thread at the top of the forum that caught Lyudmilla’s eye: “Girl chased to Eisenbern Park!”

A picture was attached, blurry, but clearly depicting a girl and several pursuers.

“Someone reported this?” Lyudmilla asked. “And you answered?”

“Yep, that’s how the Samaritan Network works!” said the Samaritan. “One of our posters saw a girl being attacked and made a thread. I responded to the call.”

“How many people know about you? There’s not a lot of posts on this board.”

Lyudmilla felt a bit silly asking the question; she herself had not known about them.

Again the Samaritan seemed to smile behind her mask. “We’re kinda indie.”

“And how many people are helping?”

“It’s never enough.”

There was a hint of helpless embarrassment in the Samaritan’s voice.

“Well, we better get moving. The victim’s probably running out of places to escape to.”

Lyudmilla turned around toward the park, and feeling bullheaded, she charged toward the white tiled road only to immediately find herself back at the fountain with the Samaritan again. There was no transition, no feeling in her body, and she retained all the momentum she had picked up running. It was as if a door had opened that just took her back to where she had been standing — seamless transportation.

“It’s no good to just keep running at it.” the Samaritan said.

“Ugh, I don’t care! I’ll just charge at it again and again until–“

“Wait a moment. I have an idea. Hopefully a big enough bang can still alert the patrols.”

“A big enough bang? Why would you hope for that?”

From her hoodie pocket, the Samaritan produced a gun.

Lyudmilla immediately saw it as the sort of gun that she knew. Sleek and black, concealable, deadly when pulled in one fluid motion right to the target’s skull and unloaded there– but it was not. It was rounded, bulky and orange and the barrel was covered in a nuclear yellow safety tape. It was a break-action flare handgun.

“What are you planning to do with that?” Lyudmilla asked.

“Draw attention to myself.”

With an impression of a smile under her mask, the Samaritan lifted her arm to aim the flare gun overhead and pulled the trigger. There was a sharp bang and a smoking canister soared skyward and exploded flashing and burning flare that slowly arced down from the black, cloudless sky overhead. Lyudmilla’s body was suddenly cast in bright red light, and her shadow became a thin strip of black directly behind her.

All of the park seemed to have been illuminated by the flare.

“To yourself? I’m here too!” Lyudmilla shouted.

Long shadows cast by the trees and the hedges seemed to stretch forever.

“Look, I know you’ve done this before, Hoodie, but is this a good idea–?”

The Samaritan did not hesitate; after shooting the flare she stowed the gun back in her coat, and put her hands down onto the soft earth near one of the hedges. She squeezed into the dirt, chanting something while her homunculus projected noise and light to fill in the gaps in her spell. Around her arms the ground glowed a dim green.

Stirred to life by her magic, the soil began to crawl up over her hands.

“Armor of Soil, may I never be disarmed!” She shouted.

When she pulled her arms back up, they were covered in compacted earth. Like a pair of big brown boxing gloves, but with a moist and uneven surface, the soil covered her fists. Now upright, she threw a couple of exploratory punches as if to test the weight.

The Samaritan then turned to face the path out to the interior of the park.

“Wait for it–“

In the next instant, the upper body and part of the leg of a young man appeared before the Samaritan and Lyudmilla, as if walking through a gelatineous membrane in the air, initially missing the rest of the body. Space rippled around him as if there was a flat plane of water right in front of the girls. He was moving through the labyrinth “wall.”

Before more of his body could come through, his face met the Samaritan’s fist.

A visor on his helmet crunched against his eyesockets and brows, and his nose spurted a great gout of blood. A tooth flew out. The Samaritan’s fist was barely dented. Her punch had flown out like a missile and struck like a wrecking ball. The fascist was on the floor with no further protest, his body half in and half out of the illusory plane that had been cast in front of them. The Samaritan stepped on him.

“Here’s our guide. Just walk over him to get past the first displacement. Hurry!”

“Ugh. Now who’s being bullheaded? Just shut up, I’m coming–“

“Someone’s in trouble and needs our help Lyudmilla! Come on, be a hero!”

With a clear cheer to her voice, the Samaritan called out while vanishing through the portal. Lyudmilla blinked, momentarily speechless. She withdrew her grimoire from inside her jacket and held it open with one hand. Sighing, she wondered for an instant what Minerva would do– but it was an easy conclusion. She followed the Samaritan.

“It’s not like I don’t want to be the big hero. Ugh. Here goes nothing.”

Lyudmilla stepped over the wheezing, blacked-out body of the fascist.

She saw her arm, held just slightly ahead of her body, sink into the air in front of her first. In one fluid motion the rest of her body followed, and there was barely any transition. It was just like walking through Minerva’s doorway and feeling the thrum of magic over her skin from the cleaning enchantment. There was no technicolor dreamscape as she traversed the portal; she was just in and out, appearing in another part of the park in less time than it took the brain to realize she had moved at all.

Now the fountain and the hedges were gone. She was standing in what seemed like the foot of a large stepped pyramid, with each tier consisting of flowerbeds flanked by paths and connected by steps up and down. At the top of the romantic pyramid was what remained of the peak of the hill that the park designers had built around, a mound of grass and earth that played host to a single, massive tree that shaded the entire upper half of the structure. It would have been the perfect place to take a particularly sappy girl to for a kiss among the roses and a tumble in the grass.

Now however it was occupied by a group of five or six boys in grey uniforms. They stood in bewilderment, looking every which way for intruders. There were implements in their hands that were meant to be weapons. Baseball bats, hockey sticks, golf putters; nothing as standard as the uniforms they were. To Lyudmilla, who still remembered the lectures of her old commanding officers, she realized a few things about the Iron Flag movement from seeing these guys, and what they had available.

Uniforms without weapons; maybe that also said something about their brains.

“Strong energy readings, overwhelming the vital readings, suggest that the tree detected ahead is part of the labyrinth’s displacement.” said Lyudmilla’s homunculus.

She had not expected it to speak as loud as it did.

Almost once, every one of the men turned around to look their way.

The Samaritan raised her fists in defense.

“After we kick these guy’s asses could you please mute that?”

Lyudmilla sighed and assumed a casting stance, holding out her grimoire while her other hand hovered over the pages, fingers ready to make spellcasting gestures.

“Hey, it’s useful, okay?” She grumbled. Nothing seemed to go her way tonight.

No one was waiting for their banter to resolve.

Without word the gang of boys rushed at them from the steps, heaving up their clubs, the bottom halves of their faces concealed by heavy chin-guards. Their eyes had a violent intensity, and Lyudmilla could see the anger and thrill reflect in their auras.

And yet their intent to kill, their willingness to withstand pain, all of that felt lacking.

As scared as she might have been of them, they were terrified of her.

Terrified of what they were being asked to do. She saw it in their wavering auras.

And so, all they could do was to make themselves monsters and charge furiously.

Running her fingers over the pages of her grimoire, Lyudmilla spread and closed them as if kneading something in mid-air. Sparks jumped off the paper where she scraped.

She had been in fights before. She had been in far scarier fights before. Lyudmilla had met people who wanted to kill her. She knew what that felt; she knew the aura of the kind of person who would end her life without her even being able to scream. There was a difference between people who could hurt her and people who would kill her.

In the back of her mind, she recalled that armored legionnaire, Ajax.

Was that the fear that stood behind these boys and pushed them to attack her?

Her hairs stood on end, and she felt a surge through her body; both adrenaline, and the electricity she was channeling through her arms, fingertips, and her grimoire. At first the sparks danced in flickering patterns that connected her fingertips to the paper like a trail of spittle after a deep kiss. Then the sparks trailed up her arm in the dozens.

Guys with sticks who weren’t even trying to do magic didn’t scare her.

And as the magic intensified, it was their fear of her that saturated the air.

“You take the left, hoodie, and I’ll–“

Before Lyudmilla finished the sentence the Samaritan had already ran in ahead.

Meeting the boys halfway down the steps, she threw the first punch and collided with one of their ribcages. Compacted mud and soil blew off her gauntlets in big chunks, and cracks formed in the remaining armor; the boy she had punched spread his mouth wide open as if to puke and slipped backwards onto his ass, clutching his chest and heaving with pain. Three boys descended on the Samaritan with their clubs.

A series of wild blows struck her armor as she held her hands before her in defense.

Two of the boys ran past her.

“Twintails, If you’ve got something up your sleeve–“

The Samaritan shouted, but Lyudmilla didn’t need to be told to use her magic.

She had been waiting for just this opportunity.

There were plenty of ways her imagination could have molded the lightning, but the sequence of men lined up before her was perfect for what she wanted to do.

“As Pherkan before me, I claim the furious sky in the name of man! Chain Lightning!”

She surprised herself with how effectively her invocation synthesized her lessons.

A spell that had once been cumbersome and exhausting to cast for her became far less effort, now that she had a better idea of how her spellcasting truly worked.

Calling on the great Rus arch-mage Pherkhan, and “associating” Lightning with Metal through the human race, who are most strongly associated to the metal they shape, and the metal she used, and wore.

Lyudmilla loosed a bolt of lightning that was like a coil of serpents dancing in mid-air.

From her outstretched, open palm it burst, as she lifted her hand from the pages of the grimoire. Her first bolt struck the closest of the men on the metal bat he carried. In an imperceptible the instant the screaming, writhing bolt burrowed through his stomach and then split. Her fell instantly to the ground, shaking, heaving with pain and shock, but bloodless. He had been penetrated without laceration, without trauma.

Chain Lightning moved through his body without impediment and split into a new bolt that then immediately bounced to the next man over. This bolt found the metal in the target’s armored knee-pads. It dug through his legs and caused them to crumple beneath him. He fell dramatically, face-first into the pavement as if dropped from the sky onto the ground. Chain Lightning raced up from his kneecaps through his chest, split anew and hurtled toward the next man in its sequence. It transpired in seconds.

Now it had jumped through both the men who had run past the Samaritan and leaped into the men she was attacking. Connected by the chain, the three of them were shocked one after the other within an eye’s blink from the last. As the bolt moved it lost strength, and while the first few men had experienced a jolt that shook their stomachs loose, the last two men to be stricken felt a far lesser impact. One staggered back, wrestling with his baseball bat as if his hands were attached to it, due to a residual magnetic cling imparted as the spell died. The second of the men cringed, shook his head, and wiped snot and blood that had spilled down his face, still standing.

“I missed some, Hoodie! You better get the trash off the grass!” Lyudmilla shouted.

“Already on it!”

The Samaritan darted forward.

Her hands spread open, dividing into individual digits where once they appeared sealed into the earthen armor. The mud and stone of her gauntlets moved with the same ease as flesh, and in that instant seemed as weightless her hands. Before they could put up their guard, the Samaritan seized the two remaining men, taking them by the shoulder and gripping. Both men screamed as her fingers dug into their skin.

With unnatural strength and ease, she spread her arms apart and lifted the men, and then bashed them together like a pair of cymbals, their faces slamming into one another. Blood drew from their noses with a visceral crunch; the two men lost the light in their eyes and hung limp at the end of the Samaritan’s hands. When she spread the rough earthen digits of her hands once again the men dropped like sacks on the floor.

She wiped her hands on each other and glanced back at Lyudmilla.

Lyudmilla thought if she could see behind the mask, she would see a smug grin.

“Heavy magic missile!”

From farther up the step pyramid, under the shadow of the great tree, a pulsating glob of glowing force came hurtling down and struck the Samaritan in the chest. Struggling to hold its shape in flight, the missile grew unstable, and as soon as it came into contact with the Samaritan’s aura it spread and burst into a circle of diffuse energies.

The Samaritan was thrown off the steps. She rolled over once and landed face-down.

Lyudmilla found the attacker immediately after his invocation.

He was staring down at them from above, hunched over, with a fancy amethyst-tipped rod clutched in two shaking hands. He had a pretty-boy face, blond hair, blue-eyes, fair and untouched skin; a really manicured kid. As if afraid of what it might do, he held the magic rod out in front of him. Casting in such a way lent little coherence to his spell. A simple “magic missile” became an unstable blob of undisciplined power in his hands.

Unlike the other men he had no helmet and no impromptu armor, no knee-pads, no vests. Only his uniform and an armband with an Iron Flag design: an eagle grasping a pair of spear-tipped flag banners.

Watching the Samaritan fall and then watching as she did not move or stand up, seemed to embolden him. “I’ll get you too, pigtails! Stay back! Don’t fucking move!”

He shouted at them, and shook his rod as if that alone would cast a spell.

Lyudmilla glanced at the Samaritan, who, from the floor, made a gesture at her.

She understood; the Samaritan was just pretending to have been hurt.

“Does daddy know you’re out here putting his retirement fund on the line?”

“Fuck you! You’re going to die tonight if you piss me off!”

He thrust the rod toward Lyudmilla, but no magic came out of it.

He was not casting anything, just trying to sound intimidating.

“I’m a Lieutenant! I’ve got thirty guys here! You’ll leave here swollen like a zit!”

A lieutenant of what? This band of neanderthals?

“Go on and try me, pussy!” Lyudmilla shouted.

He lifted the rod into the air and with his whole body shaking began to cast again.

Lyudmilla tried to think about how she would counter his spell; it was unlikely to hurt her too bad if it struck, but she wanted to bounce it back just like Minerva could. She had seen Minerva counter that ghost during one of their lessons, and tried to think back on what she was doing. Her memory of people, their bodies and movements, was flawless. She felt confident that she could mimic what Minerva had done that day.

She did not need to.

Just as the bolt of magic flew from the self-styled fascist “Lieutenant,” the Samaritan suddenly leaped up onto her feet, reared back on the spot and then leaped once again.

As she rose, the Samaritan shouted a spell command:

“Reverse Polarity! The soil in me rejects the soil beneath!”

Around her the ground visibly cracked, and dust flew up and away in a small wave.

She then hurtled toward the Lieutenant as if she had made herself into a missile.

His amorphous heavy magic missile crashed into her and dispersed, taking with it chunks of earth the size of baseballs off of the armor on her fists. Debris dropped from the sky in the Samaritan’s wake as she cleared the steps in one superhuman jump.

In the next instant she landed in front of the Lieutenant.

He drew back in terror, and fell out of sight Lyudmilla’s sight from the lower ground.

His rod dropped off the edge of the steps and clanked all the way down.

“I didn’t mean anything, I swear! He made me come here, I didn’t want to–“

Lyudmilla made for the top of the steps, over the bodies of the knocked-out men.

From the top, she could hear the Samaritan’s fist crack against the fascist’s head.

“That one’s payback for the magic missile. It actually kind of hurt. So who put you up to this then? Tell me and I’ll just knock you out instead of throwing you down the steps.”

When Lyudmilla got to the top of the steps, she found that Samaritan holding the fascist effortlessly against the trunk of the huge tree, with one hand around his neck.

Lyudmilla was very briefly distracted by the aura of the tree, but her eyes then focused back on the auras of the Samaritan and the fascist, one brown and red the other blue and grey, intermingling as they struggled. However, the fascist was clearly being outmatched. He could not physically escape, and the Samaritan’s aura was thicker.

Both of her hands were encased in a skin of jagged earth. She had his neck against the tree with fingers like a stone vice. Her remaining hand she held against his face, sharp knuckles hovering near his nose. All she had to do was rear back to strike; Lyudmilla had seen that even a jab from the Samaritan’s earthen fists held massive power.

“It was Ajax! That armored lunatic came into the frat, rounded us up; he said he had a job and when I tried to back out, I could literally see his eyes glint red from his helmet! I swear I had to go along or he would’ve cut my guts open! I didn’t have a choice!”

“Cut the crap.” The Samaritan said. “You always had a choice you piece of shit.”

Lyudmilla heard the name ‘Ajax’ and felt a chill as her mind was transported to that night, not too long ago . That empty armor they found in the forest after Moloch fell, could not have been the last of him; he definitely escaped and it did not even slow him down. He just needed new flunkies, and the group of racist sycophants who loved to fight suited him well. But Lyudmilla knew he was leagues beyond them. He had some kind of ambition; after all, he was capable of using the evil, dead art of Summoning.

And now he was back stalking some other helpless girl. But for what?

“What kind of job was it? What did you stand to gain from this?” The Samaritan asked.

She squeezed on the Lieutenant’s neck briefly. He lifted his hands to seize her arm, but he was without strength, helpless in her presence. Perhaps he, too, was at this point associated with defeat, weakness, helplessness, and could not resist inside her aura. His power had shrunk to the point his aura was just a dim outline around his frame.

Meranwhile the Samaritan’s aura was ever more imperious than Lyudmilla had seen it.

Burning a bright yellow, green and red, colors of earth and fire.

Lyudmilla thought she looked like Justice. She did not quite understand why.

It was a feeling she got when she stared at the aura. Like a smell or a taste.

“Let me go! I’m not part of this anymore, I swear it!”

“Tell me something useful or I’ll let you go rolling down the stairs.”

The Samaritan spoke with confidence as she delivered her threat.

Clearly she had had people in her power before.

Lyudmilla was briefly reminded of some people she knew, from before.

The Lieutenant cried, spat and struggled, but he could not break free and so he slumped back, whimpering. He eventually managed to shout his words out.

“There was this fancy rich girl! She came into the city tonight with a collection of gems; stuff to donate to the Academy. He wanted the girl’s jewels! We were gonna split it!”

Words said amid duress could not be so easily trusted, however.

“That’s bullshit.” Lyudmilla said. “This Ajax guy is not some two-bit thief.”

The Samaritan turned her head to glance at her. “Are you familiar with him?”

“He did the summoning! The one that was reported a while ago. That was Ajax.”

The Samaritan blinked. From the way her eyes drew wide, she was clearly surprised.

Lyudmilla had not bothered to check what had been reported about the Summoning.

People knew that Minerva was involved in stopping the Summoning.

But they apparently did not know who else was involved or who had done it.

“Ajax is hardcore. We gotta assume he has some kinda other plan.” Lyudmilla said. “Tell me, when was the last time these fascist frat boys cursed an entire park with magic?”

The Samaritan must have realized what she was up against at that point.

She turned back to the fascist Lieutenant, who cowered from her gaze.

“You’ve got a hell of a point, Twintails.” The Samaritan said.

Prompted by the current distraction, the Lieutenant started to bargain again.

“Yes! Look, he lied to us! He’s who you want, I’m– I’m a nobody! Just let me go–!”

Almost with a shrugging motion the Samaritan pulled him forward and then–

“Not against the tree!”

At Lyudmilla’s urging, the Samaritan lifted the fascist up and away from the trunk.

Rather than against the tree, she slammed him into the dirt.

His head bobbed, slobber flying from his lips as his eyes rolled up and his limbs went soft. The Samaritan released her grip on him, and he lay limp, drooling at her feet.

Lyudmilla sighed with relief. She had felt a momentary terror for the poor tree.

The Samaritan wiped her enlarged, earth-covered hands against each other.

“Fun thing about brawling with magic is you can go pretty crazy and still not kill anyone if you know what you’re doing. It’s cathartic sometimes, to be perfectly honest.”

Judging by the way her mask shifted, she must have cracked a grin under it.

With one large, jagged finger the Samaritan pointed past the tree.

“When I jumped up here I saw one other guy cowering behind the tree. He ran that way; so we know where the next corridor is. Lets follow him and see where it leads.”

Lyudmillla, however, was barely listening to her anymore. She was focused elsewhere.

“I have a better idea actually. I feel like this tree could be helpful.”

Where the Samaritan was apparently seeing nothing, Lyudmilla’s eyes saw differently.

She felt something from the great tree, and felt compelled to take a closer look.

Lyudmilla stepped up to the tree and put a hand on it. She could feel her skin brimming with the magic that had been imparted on the tree. There was something dizzying about it; trying to read its aura made her senses confused. She had a sudden onset of synesthesia. Tasting its vegetal scent right on her tongue, seeing the bark through her very fingers, hearing the coarse roughness of the trunk as her eyes gazed upon it. Patterns etched upon its being, veins both subtly superimposed and yet running deep.

For anyone else it might have shaken their minds to feel something like that.

This one edgy alt-girl had led a life so steeped in magic her heart-rate barely rose.

“This tree was made part of the spell. So if we can do something from here–“

She tried to remember. Minerva had cast spells that dispelled magic before too.

In her mind, Minerva was moving a certain way, talking a certain way, muttering under her breath where no one could hear; thinking a certain way, feeling; the way that light played off her brown skin, the way her messy dark hair swayed with the motion of her body. Lyudmilla tried to figure out how she could use that to do what Minerva did.

Perhaps, however, it was not necessary to do something so complicated as dispelling.

Lyudmilla felt, touching the tree, that it was trying to resist what the fascists had done.

Amid all the sensation, amid the great confusion that had been cast upon it, and that represented the labyrinth it had been forced to anchor, Lyudmilla felt resistance.

This labyrinth was a system, with walls and corridors, that were just as forced on this tree as they had been on the intended victim, and on the two girls fighting their way through it. Like them, the tree had an urgency to return to the world as it was. When magic was done upon you, naturally your being resisted. Lyudmilla could that tell even from its dim, timid aura; the kind of aura that things had for having lived long among magic, not an aura that was thinking or feeling, but an aura that was situated. Roots held this ground, and knew where this ground stood, and knew what winds traveled between its branches. None of this world made sense to it anymore, and it fought it.

“Lyudmilla, are you–?”

The Samaritan tried to reach out, but Lyudmilla’s mind was racing with a wild idea.

“Maybe– I know! I can give it a way to cast magic!”

This idea had formed in one chaotic instant, and in the next, it was underway.

Lyudmilla took in a deep breath, and she made her fingers feel the weight and heft and texture of a very specific object, and she thought of its origin, and of its powers and she called out its name: the Seven Castigating Stakes, one of which was– “Sudes!”

Magic poured out of Lyudmilla like a hemorrhaging wound, and she felt as if a hole had been bored in her brain. She almost passed out; her vision blurred, her head empty. Sudes was an immensely draining spell. It created an object vastly more powerful than Lyudmilla herself and required so much energy to create even a bare shell of its glory.

She recovered her balance briefly, fighting against the exhaustion and concentrating on her hands, on the shaft of the stakes. Vividly, she pictured the stakes broken in half.

In her hand, out of a rushing whirlwind of magic appeared half of a stake.

Marshaling her strength, while the magic still flowed in a great tumult around her, Lyudmilla stepped forward, lifted the stake over her shoulder and thrust brutally.

She jammed the broken half of the stake into the tree creating a shallow wound.

Facing out from the tree then, was the side of the stake that “bolstered magic.”

“Lyudmilla, what are you doing?” The Samaritan asked.

She rushed forward, as Lyudmilla nearly tipped over backwards from the effort.

As she stumbled, the crafty northern girl became bathed in an eerie green light.

Given the conduit to do so, the tree heeded her plight. It cast a spell.

Using the empowering half of the stake as a casting tool, the tree surged with magic.

Over its surface, glowing green veins ran across the trunk of the tree. Wherever they shone the brightest, a second pattern could be seen to appear as if trying to obscure the first. While the green veins were curved and curling and shot wildly everywhere, the grey lines were strict and methodical, like a map. A map of walls and corridors trying to stifle the life in the tree. But soon the green overtook it, and erased utterly the metal labyrinth that had been etched over its surface. Curling, coiling green missiles flew out like ethereal shoots from the roots and branches of the tree and flew off.

Where the green missiles struck the walls of Minos, there were great reverberations in mid-air until the walls collapsed. Suddenly more and more of the park revealed itself to the girls under the tree, and the tree revealed itself to sparse groups of hapless boys who had been hidden from view until then. Great green spouts of magic continued to fly from the tree even after the walls went down, splashing onto the grass and onto the cobblestone paths and exploding in bursts of earthen color and smell and texture.

Bearing witness to this spectacle, and knowing the part they took in chaining down that great tree, many of the boys and men could be seen to run away in great fear.

The Samaritan grabbed hold of Lyudmilla and kept her steady, watching the magic play out until the stake was spent. A green shoot from the tree coiled around the jagged wooden conjuration and claimed it as its own until it finally disappeared.

“What did you do, Lyudmilla? That was incredible.” The Samaritan said.

Her mind was airy, her strength coming and going like the drawing of breath.

Lyudmilla shook her head and tried to regain her senses. She had a terrible headache.

“I wanted to help the tree. That’s Samaritan stuff isn’t it?” Lyudmilla mumbled out.

Her companion giggled; quite gently for her appearance. “I mean– yeah, I guess it is.”

The Samaritan raised her head, looking out over the park for a moment.

She stood bolt upright and pointed out over one of the fountains across from them.

“Wait! Lyudmilla, I can see them! There they are!” She shouted.


“A truly miserable display. You are worth less than nothing. I’ll see to it that you all suffer for this embarrassment. Clearly, I must take everything upon myself.”

Centurion “Ajax Of The Iron Fang” stepped onto the beautiful deep blue tiles of a fountain plaza that was littered with a dozen of his men, strewn about, crawling and scraping and struggling. Flecks of ice delineated shallow but painful wounds that had brought several down; others were drenched in icy water and shaking miserably on the ground, where they had been struck by unseen geysers or waterfalls from thin air.

Across the plaza from Ajax was his target. She was defiant; not a single strand of sky-blue hair on her head had been touched. On the back of her head, the elegant braided bun that she wore was neat as ever. Her blazer and dress skirt had nary a tear, not even a dribble of blood. These men who fancied themselves so alpha had done nothing.

Holding out an elegant blue staff topped with a coral, she prepared to strike Ajax.

There was no mistaking it, the emerald-blue eyes, the hair, her slightly sharp ears.

This was the girl he had been after. But did she have the goods with her?

He did not know the dimensions of the stones. They could very well had been in the suitcase behind her. She had been guarding it well against all of his men. It had to be.

Ajax spoke, his voice modulated by the spell on the helmet.

“I’m quite a fan of ancient Arak, you know. I studied archeology here, even. And I already took one of your trinkets; so why not let me have the whole set?”

He taunted her. She grit her teeth and tightened her grip on her staff.

“Return the stone this instant! It does not belong to you!” She shouted.

Under the helmet, Ajax smiled. He shrugged glibly at her.

“It did not belong to you either. Moloch’s lineage traces back to the earliest of the peoples of the lower Nobilis deserts, like the Alwi. For it to sit in the collection of a far nothern aristocrat, who then claims it hers; what a joke! It’s just as much ours to take.”

Nearly in tears with anger, the girl snapped back. “That was my father’s! Return it!”

At his provocation, the young woman made a squeezing motion with her hands over the coral head of the staff, and waves of water aura danced off her hands, rippling in the air. She performed an incantation in a language that Ajax could not quite decipher, but he understood the intent well enough from the tears in her eyes and her agitated voice. Water swirled from the bottom of the staff to the top like a curled snake.

“Aqua! Excoria!”

Shouting the final incantation, the young woman thrust her staff forward and released a torrent of water. Like a high-pressure hose used to disperse riots, the stream was tight and extremely fast, cutting through the air like a knife. Had it been entirely up to the physical characteristics of the evoked energy Ajax might have been sawed in half.

Even a child, properly trained, could make magic with impressive physical qualities.

Magic was a battle of wills.

Powerful magic with a weak, wavering will behind it could never break a will of iron.

Ajax swiped his arm in front of himself with full confidence in its defense.

In the next instant the water deflected from him and soared skyward.

Droplets began to rain down over them in the next few minutes, like a spring drizzle.

Ajax cackled at her.

“I can’t return that which I don’t have. Your stone is spent and gone. In fact, that is why I have come for you personally. I need the rest of your father’s collection for my ambitions. For you, these are merely sentimental trinkets, mementos from a deceased man. But their power will open the way to the future for me. I will have them, Princess.”

Ajax outstretched his arm, and his spear was conjured in it.

He pointed the spear toward the girl, challenging her.

“I stole the Orb of Wildfire right from under the Administration’s nose, and I used it to construct an effigy to summon the tyrant Moloch. I have powers you can’t imagine.”

Stunned by the failure of her magic, the girl’s eyes drew wide and she was shaken.

“I will not fall as they did. Will you still resist? Your magic is well learned, but still weak.”

The girl’s posture softened as her will faltered.

She gasped, and drew back a step.

Ajax glanced over his shoulder; he saw a flash and immediately leaped.

At his feet a bolt of lightning and a torrent of glowing pebbles crashed into the tiles.

Below him the bolts dispersed and the pebbles vanished without damage to the ground. A result of magic without a perfect physical representation, or perhaps, the contrivance of the caster. Had he been struck, however, his body would have been much worse off than the tiles. There was intent to harm behind those projectiles.

Magic with poor learning, but an unmistakably powerful will behind it.

Ajax landed atop the rim of a fountain at the edge of the plaza.

He lifted his spear in defense, watching closely as two more figures appeared.

A familiar, hood-wearing interloper; and a familiar, twin-tailed punk.

“Leave her alone, you freak! Can’t go a day without harassing a helpless girl?”

Lyudmilla Kholodova interposed herself between the princess, brandishing a grimoire.

And moving to directly challenge him was the Samaritan he had heard so much about.

“You must be Ajax.” The Samaritan said. “I’d heard that the fascists had fallen behind a new face after Septimus went to jail. I never suspected that face to be wearing some ridiculous dragon helmet. I’ll be happy to give you the same beating Septimus got.”

Ajax grunted.

He whirled his spear in his hands before bringing the tip to rest toward them.

The Samaritan paused, alarmed by the sudden movement.

Kholodova stuck closer to the elf she had taken in her charge.

As if it would be any use.

“All of the insects are gathering. But I’m not afraid of any of you. First, your teacher isn’t here to protect you this time. And second, unlike before, I am here in whole.”

Nothing could have been more convenient. He could settle every score at once.

He ran a hand over his helmet, revealing a part of a face.

Blue eyes, blond hair; then the metal melted back into its proper shape.

“Septimus was nothing. I will change magic forever. You will not stand in my way.”

This time, Ajax of the Iron Fang would show them their resounding inferiority.


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2.3 Iron Heart

This chapter includes violent psychological distress, violence, mild sexual content.

Iron Flag/Iron Heart: A nationalist, Otrarian-supremacist organization that arose in the 1990s in Otraria, Otrarian-managed territories in lower Nobilis, and Heles. While their street movement is relatively disorganized, they found a stable home and allies in upper class educational institutions, and particularly in magical academies such as The National. Their militant wing is known as the Iron Flag, which the movement at large disavows and calls itself the Iron Heart instead. Their driving ideology is that the decline of magic, and in turn the weakness of Otraria politically and militarily, is a result of an ongoing invasion of conspiratorial foreign peoples and cultures in Otraria. In their views, Otraria must rediscover its “Iron Heart” and cast out the “foreign degenerates.


“Cheryl! I’m home, sweetie.”

Lyudmilla knocked on the dorm door and teased her roommate before coming in.

Cheryl, however, was nowhere to be found.

There was a letter on top of the desk, beautifully written. Cheryl wrote with magical grace. When she took her time, her cursive was second to none in style and precision.

“Need to be somewhere else for a bit,” Lyudmilla read aloud to herself. “Head stuff.”

She read it from the bottom to the top. She sometimes did that.

Reading the letter, Lyudmilla wondered where Cheryl went for “head stuff.” As much as she wanted to feel close to her, this question provided such singular confusion at the time that Lyudmilla felt a little frustrated. At least she had been thoughtful enough to leave a note behind. It still sucked, in Lyudmilla’s own words, to be ditched like this.

They had not gotten to talk much since they survived Moloch’s summoning.

Dimly, Lyudmilla worried that she was being ghosted. But she didn’t want to believe it.

Maybe Cheryl just needed a quiet, lonely place to scream at the top of her lungs.

“I’m just being a bitch.” Lyudmilla said. “It’s not her fault.”

Cheryl must have been having a disastrous time of things.

Lyudmilla had only just come into Cheryl’s life, but her boyfriend and his family, her friends, and even more abstractly, the safety she felt at the school, had all been there for her longer. Now it must have felt like she had nobody; like her whole life just broke. Lyudmilla had been hoping she could have this time to talk to her, to thank her for sticking up for her and Minerva, to offer support. But perhaps it wasn’t time yet.

Especially because Cheryl was not alone in having a hard time of things lately.

Her own head was getting a little scrambled.

Magic and Tyrants; Summoners and the racist political group in the school; Agents of Noct and the scorn of the educational administration; what kind of world was little Milla living in now? Everything was so out of proportion to what she was used to, that she did not even know how to feel bad about it. She felt a vague sense of trepidation with nothing to tip her over into despair or hope. It was not like before, when she could look at all her problems down the sights and barrel of a gun. Maybe for the best.

She could have the gun back if she wanted.

She could have the gun back if she could pay the toll.

Sometimes she looked at her hand and imagined it again.

Sometimes she could feel it, and the bullets it made when it took from her.

Minerva said not to do it, however. So she wouldn’t frivolously call it forth.

Lyudmilla sighed. Why listen to her anyway? But despite everything, she did.

Her Master had her feeling the most ambivalent of all.

Who was she really? And was she worth putting her faith into after all?

Could she really trust her? When she was unused to lending anyone any trust?

“Ah, fuck it! I’m going to go out partying, this sucks. I’ll even fucking drink!”

Lyudmilla shut the door behind herself. It was customary of Cheryl to keep the door open, even if someone might see in at a compromising time. But Cheryl wasn’t there. With a moment of privacy, Lyudmilla threw her blazer, dress shirt and skirt on her bunk and picked out an outfit in the closet. Like everything she wore, it was a mix of what few cool clothes she owned, and a generous helping of Cheryl’s vibrant selections.

Her fashion sense was personal and organic. Lyudmilla thought she had a sense for cool, and she could just look at a pile of clothes and make it work. Cheryl’s closet was meticulously arranged, and so, she needed only to quickly scan for things and grab.

First she threw on her favorite black hoodie over nothing but a black sports bra, and zipped it only as far up as it needed to go to hold together. Her chest was mostly exposed, just like she wanted it. Anyone who said there wasn’t much to see could go fuck themselves, she thought. Lyudmilla could have gone louder, even: she would have preferred Cheryl’s skimpy bikini tops, but all of them were, well, oversize for her.

Next, she honed in on some fancy high-rise lingerie and a pair of black, glossy short pants with doubled-up legs. She slipped them on, tightening the pants with a heart-buckle belt. Finally, she would wear a pair of sneakers. Pumps might’ve been too girly. She wanted to show off, but she also wanted everyone to know she’d kick their ass.

She looked for her cigarettes, but Cheryl routinely threw them out whenever she found them. Then she looked for her weed; but that was just gone of its own accord.

Lyudmilla did not even want to smoke at that moment. She just thought it’d look cool to have when she went to the club, depending on the club she ended up going to.

On the table, she saw her grimoire, where she had dropped it as she undressed.

She almost left it behind. But on the way out, she swiped it, squeezed it until it shrank to the size of a little portable bible, and stuffed it in the front pocket of her hoodie.

As much as she wanted to, magic was not something she could just ignore and forget.

When she left the dorm the horizon had consumed three quarters of the sun and the sky overhead was bright orange with the last throes of daylight. She knew a couple places that opened this early — but there were a few others farther away, that, by the time she reached them, it would certainly be dark, and they’d be throwing real parties.

She walked the streets, hands in her pockets, trying to make up her mind.

The Estate dorm was located near the center of the town that had grown around the National. There was a main thoroughfare just off of the plaza that led into the dorm buildings, flanked with shops and bars trying to entice the steady flow of students coming and going. The streets weren’t packed at this time of the day, after classes, but there was still quite a bit of foot traffic. Lyudmilla slipped in amid the small crowd.

She tried to think of where to go, but as she went over the options she started to wander the town without much direction. The sun started to go down. Lyudmilla had gone clubbing before but there was something about tonight that made her hesitate. Every venue she knew, she found some reason not to go to. The Eden might have been the place to go, but it was crowded and some of the regulars had been bitchy to her before. She could have stopped at Club Gravity, but found herself walking past when she saw the line to get in. InMotion was a cool spot, but they had a celeb House DJ that night so the music was probably going to suck. She could always go somewhere new.

Telling herself that, she started fiddling with her homunculus, spotting new places.

It started to get slow, however, as she scrolled past an endless list of clubbing spots.

Eventually, the screen went black again from disuse, and ceased to respond.

Her head was in the clouds.

She missed several of the clubs she had made a note of; she just walked past.

Soon she found herself just thinking about the walk, and consequently, just walking.

She was not going anywhere. She was stuck as she was now. Who she was now.

Lyudmilla Kholodova, a magician-in-training at the prestigious National Academy.

Out and about, just looking for a drink, hard enough bass, and girls to tease.

She developed her own romanticism; lost in her own little fantasy.

It felt pathetic somehow. There was no direction to it — “pure A.D.D.,” she told herself.

There was something about it. It’s not like she hated the trip so far.

Walking through town made everything seem so normal. There weren’t dragons and kobolds and spirits walking through town or floating in the air. There were no fireballs and lightning bolts slinging to and fro. Sometimes, she would see a girl with some kind of conjured cosmetic glamour, like a pair of cat’s ears or a tail. It was like she was not walking through a magical university, surrounded by witches and wizards. Maybe she was not; maybe most of the people here were normal people, minding restaurants and cleaning streets, and there were only a few actual magicians. Lyudmilla didn’t know.

She was a recent inductee into the life of the collegiate mage.

That had not been the way of things in her previous years.

Rus had been in the throes of a civil war that hid in plain sight, while its anonymous yet frequent violence undid the great society little by little, fragmenting everything her people had once gained. For anyone in Rus-Moroz this was a part of their life, even if the world at large did not acknowledge it. For anyone there, bodies just turned up.

And people just killed each other.

There was not any official outrage or acknowledgment.

It was like everyone was being lied to even as the bullets went in their brains.

Living in that place, maybe Lyudmilla’s brain really was scrambled too.

She had been on the side of the former soldiers, against the church and mages.

When she was told she’d be leaving the war-torn north and going to Otraria as a refugee, Lyudmilla did not know how to conceptualize it. She was not like the other child soldiers. She had gotten paid and had gotten to live it up a little when she became more an adult. She’d gone partying in Moruma; she’d bought cool sneakers with the money she got for shooting up a guy in one of the Western Churches. It was not like it was for other kids; it was just business. She had nothing to feel gross about.

Or so she told herself, whenever she felt gross about it. Whenever it felt too heavy.

She tried to put it out of her mind. She was just Lyudmilla Kholodova. Just an ordinary edgy alt-girl who liked some shitty stuff, like anyone. An ordinary girl in a magic school.

Walking down the street, through all of this normality, Lyudmilla took a look at her hand; her ordinary, normal girl’s hand. She suddenly sent a current running through it.

Tiny sparks of blue electricity crackled between her fingers very briefly.

She had seen Minerva do magic without speaking, and she poked the idea in her brain until she did something similar. Tiny sparks was merely all she could do on a whim. Had she been able to concentrate even a bit, maybe she would have done better. Tonight was not a night for concentrating. Already her brain was accelerating to the next thing.

Still, she felt a strange sense of satisfaction, having done it.

Lyudmilla had always been good at learning by looking at things and practicing them.

Perhaps that is why she had held such a rare and different rank than the other kids.

All of the orphans from the war fought. Some wanted to; some got incentives to.

Some were forced to.

Killing mages, killing the clergy, those traitors; to take the country back for the people.

She was among the few child soldiers who did magic.

“What if I got laid tonight?” Lyudmilla told herself, feeling her head turning heavy. She chuckled. “I’ll find a hot older girl at the club and crash at her place, that’d be cool.”

What club? She had walked past all of them. There would be no club.

But she wanted her mind to race past pain and toward pleasure. She needed it to.

“I’ll give her a bit of jolt.” She chuckled to herself, rubbing her fingers together.

In response to her jests, her mind offered up a picture of a few other things she did with her hands, other than hot girls. In this case, she saw the stake in her hand that she threw at Moloch’s core in order to destroy it; and she saw, briefly, the same hand, and the same stake, become a loaded gun on a cold street, sending a blazing red light into the back of a man in a priestly garb, tunneling through his heart and out into the air.

“Fuck.”

Lyudmilla began to weep. She found herself weeping.

It happened that suddenly.

She was still walking, barely knowing where she was going, or what was around her.

People seemed to fade in and out of existence. Her head was a swirl of broken and confused thoughts. She wiped her eyes with the back of her fist, and felt her feet shaking as she walked, faster and faster until she had broken into a run.

“Fuck. Guess you’re not partying tonight Lyudmilla, you ditzy bitch.”

Her voice trembled as she chided herself. Her slurs rose to a scream.

She started to get pissed. At herself, but also at everyone around her.

Her mind was turning over at thousands of kilometers per second.

Nobody understood, and everyone was always fucking up with her. She felt like screaming more. Her country; her school; her class. Minerva. The Commander. Everyone had set her up wrong, everyone had abandoned her to this. Even–

Even Cheryl?

Nobody ever did right by her. Everyone just went their own way without getting it.

Cheryl didn’t get that Lyudmilla needed to know it wasn’t weird between them, and that she needed to know right now that she wasn’t being abandoned; Minerva didn’t get that Lyudmilla needed her to be perfect or else the fucked up turn her life had taken recently would be for nothing, because she needed to know Minerva really was special, so she could cope with having to follow her and trust her and admire her–

And it was certain that the school didn’t get that Lyudmilla was not just going to be ok with a dorm and food credits and going to class every day after spending life as a magical killer moonlighting as a schoolgirl in a country falling apart from inside out!

Nothing was going to be ok, and nobody seemed to get that!

“What is anyone supposed to feel now? Why can’t someone just tell me what to do?”

Lyudmilla shouted at the top of her lungs.

She felt a rising, incoherent hatred for everything.

Her breaths started to catch in her chest.

There was no response from anyone around her.

There was nobody, around her. She was all alone.

She looked around herself. She did not know how far she ran, how much she shouted.

She turned her head, whipping around in a sudden paranoia.

People must have thought she was crazy– but she saw no one around anywhere.

She turned the entire landscape over, and there was not a soul.

Her eyes were clouded with tears, but she scarcely recognized the surroundings.

There were hedges and sculpted bushes. In the distant, hazily, she saw a fountain.

It was a park; it was her park, she thought. She came here for weed once or twice.

It was Eisenbern Park, she recalled. There was a statue of that man somewhere.

Right now there was just the fountain.

When she wiped her eyes, everything was still hazy. She felt she could barely see the tops of the trees, they seemed to loom over her. Maybe she was having a worse episode than she thought. Everything felt oppressive, like it was closing on her. She had not taken any medicine, but she was freaked out enough she almost considered it.

Lyudmilla started to walk the way she came. She wanted to hide in bed forever.

At her back, there was still a fountain.

“I didn’t fuck anyone but myself tonight.” She told herself, bitterly.

She stomped her feet for a moment as she walked.

“Stupid, just, fucking– stupid.”

What was anyone supposed to feel? Wasn’t she supposed to drink and smoke and party, wasn’t that living life? After everything that happened? Wasn’t that normal?

Wasn’t she a normal girl now, who did normal shit?

But she wasn’t. She was a magician, too. And she didn’t know what that meant.

Except going to this school and getting jerked around.

Fountain–

Lyudmilla snapped her head up. She looked around.

It was the same fountain again; the trees; the sculpted bushes.

“I’ve been walking.” She told herself. “I’ve never stopped. I should’ve been outta here.”

She started to walk again, paying close attention to the fountain.

As she went to cross the hedge, suddenly and without transition, she was walking with the fountain in the distance again. She should have crossed the hedges and been out of the park, but here it was. One step out of the hedge, and it was the fountain again.

In an instant of panic she repeatedly tapped the screen of her homunculus.

“Wake up! Hello? Can you tell me what the fuck’s going on?”

Her homunculus screen lit up with a progress bar that finished completion.

“Update completed. Initializing M.A.G.E. tactical spellcasting companion.”

First the homunculus screen went black, and then loaded back a red window with seemingly hundreds of gibberish lines scrolling quickly past Lyudmilla’s vision. There was one line on the screen that wasn’t scrolling, a copyright for some of the program’s code base owned by the Ayvartan government. Finally, the screen went black again and then loaded a sparse white interface with a few numbers ticking up and down.

“You were updating all this time?” Lyudmilla shouted at her wrist in outrage.

In the next instant the homunculus responded in its dull, droning voice.

“In an emergency, command input is still accepted during the update process.”

“I don’t care!”

Lyudmilla raised her wrist into the air and shook her homunculus this way and that, as if trying to get it to see the park around her. “Can you tell me what is happening here?”

Of course, the homunculus was not alive and showed no indication of distress at being jostled around. Lyudmilla had almost desired to hear a quivering or empathetic voice, but instead got a robotic, male-passing droning, characteristic of her wrist computer.

“Utilizing the same hardware extensions that allow for assisted spellcasting through light, sound, biometric and geographic awareness and projection, and running the gathered data through a military-grade algorithmic and learning environment, M.A.G.E. can run analysis on ethereal, spectral and vital patterns and waveforms. Data output will be partially verbal; scanning for compatible visual hardware to transmit to.”

Lyudmilla saw the camera on the wrist computer’s face flash.

“Hardware found. Please don the identified visual hardware for output.”

On the homunculus’ screen, Lyudmilla saw a wireframe image of a pair of sunglasses.

Absentmindedly she picked at the pocket of her hoodie and felt the sunglasses there.

“Really? These old things?”

She lifted the sunglasses, spread open the legs and pushed them up her nose.

As soon as her eyes had adjusted to the lenses, she instantly saw the information that was on her homunculus appear, hovering in front of her. It happened so quickly it felt like a light had flashed directly into her eyes, and she was momentarily disoriented.

“What the fuck? What did Minerva do to my smartwatch?”

At that moment, when Lyudmilla ceased to pay attention to the homunculus and for the briefest second caught a glimpse of the world around her, as seen through the sunglasses and the projection from the device, her predicament started to take a palpable shape. She could see trails and auras that would have once required great concentration to spot with her naked eyes. They were only slightly visible, but enough that she could identify them. She saw a dim multi-colored gas, a ribbon in the air, that ringed the park and discolored everything outside the perimeter it delineated. She saw a gray and blue aura emanating from the edges of the ribbon and spreading. Five or so meters from the thick center of the “ribbon” the colors diffused and disappeared.

It was clear, however, that some kind of spell was surrounding the park, and another was spreading through it in every direction. She was in a sealed-off space, and so, she surmised, whenever she tried to leave she was forced back to the last spot she had been in, inside the space. Lyudmilla was trapped, and she did not know by whom.

Her mind was suddenly shifting into the hyperactive clarity of a soldier in battle.

“If someone was after me they’d have gibbed me by now.” Lyudmilla said to herself.

She must have fallen in a trap meant for someone else. Whoever cast it was not even paying attention to her, and probably did not even realize she was around. She had been a sitting duck here for long enough now that it could not have been sheer luck.

“Homunculus, what kind of spell is this? Do you know?”

“Analyzing–“

In the enhanced view she was seeing through her sunglasses, Lyudmilla could see a faint light like a pen laser tracing a circle from her homunculus out into the air around her. A pulse emanated from the wrist computer and returned after the striking the barrier. She saw a column of numbers and letters on one side of the screen on the watch itself that were not mirrored on her glasses. It was doing something.

Finally ‘the robot’ — as Lyudmilla began to think of it — spoke up once more.

“Spell waveforms are consistent with the line of Helic spells known as ‘Laburinthos’. Strong illusion and conjuration magic focused on multiple points in plain space have recreated the maze of Minos in this area. It is not possible to escape the confines, until the sources anchoring the spell are found and dispelled deeper within the maze.”

Lyudmilla blinked. “Do you know who you’re asking to do this stuff?”

She was flabbergasted. She barely understood anything ‘the robot’ had said.

Obviously she was trapped in some kind of magic; the particulars of that explanation were a lot to take in. How many anchors were there? How could she dispel them? She did not know any dispelling magic beyond ones like Herrcher’s Arcane Unmaking or Kabukov’s Unraveling Arrow. Would they be enough to break down magic this strong?

“Loading morale module.”

At once, the voice of the homunculus became that of a sweet woman with a thick accent. “Soldier, you can do anything you set your mind to, for country and comrade–“

Lyudmilla’s face flushed. Could it tell that kind of thing about her?

“Oh shut up! Never do that again!” She shouted.

“Unloading morale module.”

“Never!”

“Uninstalling morale module.”

At that point Lyudmilla heard the leaves rustling on the hedges.

This noise intensified to become crunching and stamping.

Then, from the hedges across the fountain, Lyudmilla saw figures falling through.

“Vital waveform detected,” said her homunculus. “Low resonance and impact.”

Soon as the robot said the word ‘impact,’ Lyudmilla heard a bone-crunching punch.

A black-clad figure landed atop another as they fell through the hedge and delivered a series of sharp punches that smashed the defender’s arms out of the way and then cracked his helmet as he fell back. He was a clearly wearing repurposed bicycle helmet with a coat of metal paint, and it splintered like a plastic toy when subjected to the attacker’s violent blows. Spittle flew out of the mouth of the man absorbing the punch, and he fell to the ground as if there was no weight to his legs, instantly out.

Then the attacking figure swiftly swung back around to face the hedge.

In the very next instant, a second grey helmet and mask plunged through the green.

Though not taken by surprise, the swift puncher could only grapple with the new enemy, who was significantly bigger and had not spent as much of his stamina. There was an aura around him also — around both of them. Lyudmilla could not tell what the enchantments were, but there had clearly been a melee going on longer than this.

When the two opponents collided, they locked arms and struggled, grappling and shoving and then striking wherever they could get an opportunity to free their hands from each other. The featherweight puncher shoved back, created space, and threw strikes; but the big guy was on his guard quickly, and just as quick to grab again.

This was a fight, a real fight; a street fight! People were getting fucked up here!

Lyudmilla lost her inhibitions and charged headlong toward the fountain.

As she neared, the figures revealed their true forms. For the one throwing punches, Lyudmilla could see they were wearing a heavy-duty black jacket with a hood pulled up over their head, and a surgical mask and sunglasses. Near completely anonymized; but Lyudmilla saw markers of a familiar sex. Even with how thick that jacket looked there was an impression that there were breasts beneath, and the jeans the puncher wore clung close enough to fill in the rest of a womanly figure. Those savage punches had not been thrown bare, either. Lyudmilla saw a rust-brown strip over each knuckle.

And over each strip, the faint billowing of an aura of some kind. On one wrist, barely concealed, was a homunculus flashing warning lights. The featherweight was a mage.

Meanwhile, both the grey helmet knocked flat on the ground and the bigger one still fighting were dressed in almost military-style coats and pants, all grey. On their wrists, they too bore the magical implements of National students. Not just spellcasters generally, but specifically students. Lyudmilla could tell. All of them wore the same school-issued model, in the stock grey with a sturdy, basic faceplate and touchscreen.

They were the fascists, Lyudmilla knew. She had seen them before.

She recalled how the boys under Ajax’s command dressed and acted.

Power-tripping racist savages spoiling for someone weaker to hurt.

“These guys must be one tier up from those sackless fuckwits.” Lyudmilla told herself.

They had real coats at least.

That was more than Cheryl’s boyfriend and his friends got.

But who was that they were fighting?

Some street punk?

Lyudmilla cleared the fountain at full sprint, running up the steps to it and past the water basin. As she did, the hooded puncher she’d begun to think of as ‘the featherweight’ got shoved back and struck in the side of the head with a fist.

They stumbled back, clearly losing their balance.

Sensing opportunity, the fascist charged, descending on the punk.

One of his fists glowed dimly green and purple.

He threw a second punch, and left some of that aura on the punk’s shoulder.

Lyudmilla felt her skin brim with the urgency of the situation.

No time to reach for the grimoire. She acted entirely in the moment.

“Spellcasting detected, assisting–“

Her homunculus felt it in her biometrics a second ahead as Lyudmilla cast a spell.

“Lord Pherkan, unveil the fury that clouds the boreal skies! Molniy!”

She shouted the incantation, and the fascist stopped momentarily to face her.

Leaping into the air over the last steps down from the fountain, Lyudmilla’s raised a hand with fingers brimming with blue bolts. An insubstantial javelin of metal-aligned lightning magic formed in her hand and twisted like a struggling snake in her grip.

Without time, a longer incantation, a casting tool, or all of them, the bolt was going wild in her hands. She could barely contain it. Its heat was stinging between her fingers.

Barely able to hold the projectile she had created, Lyudmilla leaned into the descent of her own jump and then used all of her momentum to hurl the shimmering bolt away.

She focused with every fiber of her being on harming, killing, striking, shocking.

Harmful magic came in a multitude of forms. One could try to cause an enemy to become sick with a pox, or turn to stone, or burn up, or be pierced with spears; any torment one could imagine, magic could visit upon an enemy. But just thinking about the pain you would cause was not enough to inflict it. Because of their auras all humans and all living creatures had inherent defenses against magic. They could make it weaker, or absorb it altogether, or warp the effects out of usable shape.

Perhaps the “associations” Minerva spoke of also had something to do with it also.

When she cast the spell, when she channeled it in her hands and finally when she fired it, the agitated Lyudmilla had wanted a bolt of lightning to shock the fascist to death.

Instead, the bolt struck him in the stomach as if it was a blunt instrument.

There was a surge of electricity that was clearly coursing through his body. His legs danced out from under him, and a dark stain crept along his pants as he very clearly pissed himself from the attack. But there was barely any heat transferred, nothing burned, nothing was pierced. Blue sparks deflected in numerous directions as the bolt struck him, dissipated, and knocked him back, eyes wide, jaw hanging, limbs twitching.

Most students would have only known one generic magic missile with which to defend themselves with. Killing magic and hurting magic was not taught widely. One could learn it, and anyone motivated to do so would; but it was not productive or practical, the things magic needed to be to compete with science. So it was not prioritized.

Watching the result of her attack unfold, Lyudmilla briefly understood some of the things Minerva had taught her. Magic was imagination and could take any shape; but a duel between wizards was a battle of wills. You never knew what would happen. To truly crush an opponent with magic there had to be greater wits and power at work.

For Minerva to have defeated Moloch, it must have taken her a titanic effort.

Lyudmilla felt in that instant both powerful and powerless. She had so far to go yet.

Even though she was already so far ahead of her peers in certain ways.

She clenched those hands of hers, those normal, abnormal hands.

And yet, there was no time to feel pity. Lyudmilla was in the middle of something.

There was work only violence could accomplish, and Magic was her one weapon.

Quickly after her attack, she took stock of the situation.

Her fascist was out like a light. Not dead; perhaps that was for the best.

In her anger, Lyudmilla had not considered she was not meant to be a killer anymore.

Once she was sure the enemy was down, she sprinted toward the stumbling, hooded figure who was still in the midst of disorientation and about to fall into the hedge.

That was not an ordinary punch they took. Nobody was throwing ordinary punches.

Her featherweight looked quite dizzy.

Lyudmilla grabbed the featherweight before they could fall to the ground.

“Are you okay? Say something!”

She immediately raised their category to welterweight as she held them up.

In response, the hooded figure coughed violently and gagged.

“Whoa!”

Lyudmilla tried to hold on to them. Something was quite wrong.

“Poison detected. Conjured poison is weaker than the original strain.”

In disbelief, Lyudmilla brought up her homunculus, staring incredulously at it.

“What am I supposed to do then?”

In her hands, the hooded figure writhed.

Coming just short of vomiting, the figure coughed with horrible force.

Between each cough was a sharp, sucking gasp.

This was followed by a brief muttering.

“Spell waveform detected–“

Lyudmilla’s ‘robot’ spoke just as the hooded figure’s own ‘robot’ acted.

Assisted by their homunculus, the hooded figure’s hand glowed bright.

Featherweight smacked themselves in the stomach with a shining palm.

For an instant, the mask came loose on their face.

Lyudmilla caught a brief glimpse of a soft face and bright eyes before the figure realized the fullness of their senses, and covered their face with their other hand.

Regaining their breath, perhaps having counteracted the poison, the figure shook Lyudmilla off, shoving with their shoulders and taking a brusque step back from her.

Once more they nearly stumbled into the hedge; recovering from the sudden tumble, the featherweight stood and adjusted their sunglasses, mask and hood in a brief panic.

Anonymized once more, the hooded figure turned sharply to face Lyudmilla.

“Whoa! Fucking, cool down, okay? I just saved you from him!”

Lyudmilla pointed at the downed fascist, a pool steadily spreading about him.

Chest rising and falling with deep breaths, the hooded figure opposite Lyudmilla appeared almost contrite in their body language all of a sudden. They hunched their shoulders forward, and stared at the ground. They stuffed their hands into their pockets. Was that shame? Was this punk really sorry they turned on Lyudmilla?

“You did save me. Thank you. I’m sorry about that shove. It’s been a night, you know?”

When she finally spoke, the figure’s voice was gentle, almost out of place.

This was no ordinary street punk, in a multitude of ways.

“It’s a night for shoving, I guess. And all kinds of other things.”

Lyudmilla nodded. She was disarmed by the character of the voice, and by the casual tone that it took. By the softness, and reasonableness of it. Lyudmilla would have been throwing f-bombs. “Yeah, you can say that again. You might not have noticed but the park’s under some kinda curse. Who are you? Some kinda hooligan caught up in this?”

Slowly the figure straightened up. She dusted herself off, and cracked a grin under the surgical mask. Lyudmilla could tell through the paper, and her cheeks had moved too. Whatever kind of cool this mysterious boxer had, she was definitely getting it back.

“You can call me the Samaritan.” She said.

“Oh I get it. You’re one of those street punks that fights these guys all the time.”

Lyudmilla had heard of something like that; violent counter-protesters.

She was at a loss for what she heard them called, but the Samaritan elucidated.

“You could say I’m antifa, yeah. I’m not exclusively antifa, but yeah, I do it too. I’m just your all-around concerned citizen.” She stretched an arm toward Lyudmilla, fist curled up. “Wanna pull up your hood with me too? Right now the fash outnumber my crew.”

Lyudmilla put on her own grin. She felt a bloodthirsty kind of hype in that moment.

Truth be told, it was also the kind of night where she felt like tearing some shit up.

“I’m not afraid of these guys. They can look at my pretty face all they fucking want. Tell me this though, is your crew still outnumbered if I come with?” Lyudmilla asked.

“Lets just say my odds would double with you along.” the Samaritan replied.

“Well then.”

Lyudmilla stretched out her own arm and bumped her fist on the Samaritan’s.

“Can you clue me in on what these cosplaying shitheads are doing here?”

The Samaritan raised her homunculus and showed Lyudmilla something on it.

It was the layout for something like a forum, or a text message thread.

“They’re after somebody. She called for help, and the Samaritans are answering.”

<<< Previous / Next >>>

2.2: Associations

Lyudmilla Kholodova turned her head from her master to the uniformed newcomer with confusion in her eyes. She felt a faint power from the woman’s hip pack that concerned her. It was not something she had ever felt before. Not the sensation of magic, but something close to it. And it was ambient; though the pack was clearly turned off, making no noise and doing nothing that could be seen by those responsive to auras, it was still giving off something. It was like a smell with no scent for the nose.

All that one felt from it was tingling and burning with no distinct texture to it.

Von Drachen’s previous statement, asking Minerva about Moloch, had been worded like a challenge. The agent’s face and body language made it clear that she relished the power and authority she carried. Her mouth curled slowly into a self satisfied smile. She seemed on the verge of licking her lips, as if she had taken a delectable bite.

“I feel I am still in the dark as to the nature of your presence.” Minerva said. Lyudmilla noticed that she carefully avoided answering the question at hand. She herself kept quiet while Minerva and the agent talked. She felt an intense pressure in the room.

In response to Minerva throwing the question back on her, Von Drachen crossed her arms and narrowed her eyes, still smiling. “I know you’re a migrant, so maybe you don’t really know this all that well. But ten years ago we Noctean people allied with your country as part of the Roterosz Agreement to enact a suppression campaign against the primordial Etherian called ‘Mother Hydra.’ Of course, Noct quite handily defeated this monster for all your sakes’. Part of this agreement afterward was that Otraria would investigate and suppress Summoning magic and the summoning of Etherians, or allow Panopticon to do so. Now, a Summoning occurred; so Panopticon is here.”

“Forgive me, and no disrespect is intended to you, but Otraria is not my country.” Minerva said. “I live and work here, but you presume too much saying any more.”

She said this in a controlled, almost glib tone of voice. But Von Drachen was unfazed.

“Regardless, Ms. Orizaga, as someone who Iives and works here, in a University meant to turn out dabblers in the chaos of magic, you are as responsible for the quelling of forbidden powers as any one of your similarly-endowed peers.” Von Drachen said.

“Indeed, and quell the forbidden power I did. You likely already have access to all of my statements, so there’s no need for me to be subjected to your circular questioning.”

Lyudmilla was flabbergasted by the way they talked to each other. Both were perfectly calm, their voices and sentences completely controlled. They were like snakes coiling around each other, but neither had launched a bite. She had never felt such passive aggression coming from two souls. She was much more used to open insults.

Minerva’s face was neutral, inexpressive. Von Drachen continued to smile.

Their eyes locked together. Von Drachen split her crossed arms to put one on her hip and raised her remaining fingers to her lips, delicately laughing at no one in particular.

“Forgive me, I perhaps came off the wrong way. In fact, I am an admirer of sorts, you could say. I don’t want to know the bare facts of the situation. But rather, I’d love for you to demonstrate the power that allows a teaching assistant from an oppressed ethnicity, alienated from halls of magical knowledge for generations, to defeat an Etherian single-handedly. Anyone who kills Etherians is a friend to the Republic.”

“For as much as you hate magic, Ms. Drachen, you don’t understand it very well.”

Minerva’s face was perfectly composed, but Von Drachen’s lips curled slightly down.

“Please do refer to me as ‘Von Drachen,’ you misunderstand how our honorifics work.”

“Apologies.” Minerva said. “At any rate, frau Von Drachen, the study of magic is at an all time low point. Most magicians haven’t the learning, motivation, skill or willpower to perfect even the simplest magical practices. As a teacher of magic, I’m already far above the average magician by the very fact that I have mastered anything at all.”

“Could your fellow teachers have defeated Moloch then?” Von Drachen asked.

“Some could have.” Minerva replied. She might not have been lying, Lyudmilla thought. Certainly, Beatrix Kolsa gave off an aura of strength and confidence that rivaled even what Lyudmilla had seen of Minerva. But she was one of the few good ones in the young student’s estimation. Minerva was right. Most magicians today, were hopeless.

Of course, Lyudmilla herself was quite good at it, she thought.

It was just the darned exams and essays that were a problem.

As Minerva spoke, Von Drachen’s little orb flew about, its central eye expanding and contracting like the lens of a very high-tech camera. They were being filmed, maybe even cross-referenced in some kind of way. Could it perhaps see their auras? Was it transmitting information to Panopticon? Maybe that’s why Minerva was tight-lipped.

Lyudmilla’s eye was then drawn past Von Drachen and to the doorway behind her.

There were students coming and going to class, and all of the ones crossing past their door threshold seemed anxious and casting glances at the wall just off to the side of the doorway. Lyudmilla thought then that someone else must have been out there. None of them were looking through the doorway, so it was not just Von Drachen.

In the next instant, Lyudmilla’s master must have thought the same.

“Tell your partner to come in and stop scaring the students.” Minerva said.

“Oh!”

Von Drachen played cute for a second. She grinned and clapped her hands together.

“I’ll introduce you then. Catalina, you may join me.” Von Drachen said.

A second figure entered the room in response to these words. She wore the same tri-color style uniform, but she was taller and had a pronounced figure compared to the slimmer Von Drachen. Her long dark hair and perfectly blunt bangs gave her a manicured, princess-like appearance, and she had a placid smile. Unlike the pearl-pale Von Drachen, this agent’s skin was a honey-colored tan, with eyes fiercely orange.

Her expression, however, was similar. She was smiling, and seemed quite amused.

“I did not intend to scare the students, Ms. Orizaga. You will hopefully forgive me. I’ve a presence that some have referred to as ‘unsettling.’ I’m Catalina Pedros-Robles.”

Lyudmilla could immediately tell what she meant. That foreboding feeling that she got from Von Drachen, she got three times as pronounced from Pedros-Robles. Whatever their auras were made of, Pedros-Robles had a thicker, far more violent version of that aura. Lyudmilla understood that people from Noct were unable to do magic, so she wondered what it was that she was feeling from the two of them, if that was the case.

Pedros-Robles extended a hand to politely shake Minerva’s.

Minerva abstained. She cast a callous glance over at Von Drachen.

For her part, Von Drachen grunted, but retained her smiling demeanor.

“Well, Ms. Orizaga, this conversation feels like it has become unproductive. So let me just be blunt. Whenever I call upon you, I will expect you to drop everything and come to the aid of my investigation. That is the true objective of my visit. As one of the first persons of this esteemed Academy to come into contact with an Etherian in years, you are a crucial piece of this puzzle. I will have you, whenever I desire. Understood?”

She extended her own hand in place of Pedros-Robles’ hand.

Lyudmilla was scandalized at the rather dubious wording of Von Drachen’s demand.

She turned to Minerva to see what she would do.

Her master was still unshaken by any of the agent’s provocations.

Once again, Minerva left the Noctish officers hanging. She refused to take the hand.

“I am more than willing to follow all appropriate law and policy to resolve this matter.”

That was all Minerva said. Von Drachen withdrew her hand.

“Hmph. Let us to see to that then. Catalina had a curiosity earlier, which I share.”

Von Drachen nodded her head at Pedros-Robles, who metaphorically took the stage.

“Ms. Orizaga,” Pedros-Robles began, “is it not true that the summoning site of the Etherian is now tainted? Is it not true, that all persons that came into contact with it are tainted by its touch? That the object that summoned it, which remains in this Academy, is tainted by its influence still? What’s stopping this catastrophe from simply unraveling the same way again? Should we not, say, quarantine all involved?”

As Pedros-Robles spoke, the violent grin on her face grew ever wider.

Minerva chuckled, in a quite obviously mocking fashion.

“Lyudmilla, how much do you know about associations?”

She turned to her student, who had so far never spoken once. Her eyes had fully disengaged from Von Drachen and Pedros-Robles as if ignoring the both of them. A smiling, inquisitive, cheerful face had taken the place of Minerva’s vacant expression of the previous conversations. Lyudmilla was taken aback, having been put on the spot so suddenly. She glanced at the officers and found them suddenly less amused.

“Uh, can you refresh my memory?” Lyudmilla asked.

At that point, Minerva turned back to their guests, both of whom grew slightly sullen.

“What about you, officer Von Drachen? Do you know?”

Von Drachen pursed her lips slightly.

“I’ve an inkling of it.” She said. “But go on, elaborate for your student.”

Minerva nodded. “I shall elaborate for all. I think you two have the most to learn today.”

She stood from her desk, and slowly picked up an object from it. It was a horn, as if pulled from the skull of a cow, or more like a ram. It was curved and brown-black.

Minerva was careful to pick it up without it seeming like a sudden movement.

Lyudmilla, who had dealt with police in the past, knew the kind of way Minerva was moving at that moment. And yet, she saw none of the twitchiness that an ordinary pig would have if someone like Minerva reached for a mysterious object while under scrutiny. Both Von Drachen and Pedros-Robles remained perfectly still, and Minerva’s movements were unacknowledged by them. It was as if they were fully confident they could not come to harm in her presence, no matter what she tried to do to them.

Von Drachen’s orb dilated its central eye, but made no sudden movements of its own.

“Trying not to get too far into theoretical metaphysics, but all magic is built on association.” Minerva said. “This horn, for example, I simply pulled from the old bones of a dead animal from the Agrimancy building. It is associated mildly with the Earth.”

Minerva held it up. “Concentrate on it. Can you see it?”

Von Drachen scoffed. “I can’t see a thing.”

Pedros-Robles concentrated. “I see something, dimly.”

Lyudmilla squinted her eyes at the horn.

When she concentrated on it she felt like a filter had gone over her eyes.

There were dim tongues of light that moved like fire, or perhaps like a gas bleeding off of the horn. Lyudmilla could not explain it precisely, but it was aura. There was an aura around the object, and if she concentrated, she could see it as the color of soil and sand, and she could feel its texture. Gritty, rough; particulate like dust through fingers.

“You can say magic is the power of imagination. When we look at something in just the right way, when we feel something is correct, or that it makes sense, it can become magic to us. That’s the power of associations. It’s a basic word we use in magical studies to describe the relationships that worldly concepts have to each other in a magical context. Because we believe in them so strongly as to be subsconscious, and because they make so much sense to us there, they make it easier to do magic.”

Minerva withdrew a wand from her jacket.

“May I demonstrate, agents?” Minerva said.

Von Drachen shrugged. “I abhor the use of magic, but you people do what you must.”

Minerva smiled, and swiped the wand over the surface of the horn and intoned a spell.

“From death, make life anew: Prithvi’s blossoming!”

After her incantation, a tiny sliver of green vine began slowly to grow out of the cracks in the bone. A thin trickle of dust and earth seeped out of the crack as the vine curled.

“Calcium, bone, meal for plants.” Minerva said. “Plants are life associated with the Earth. Plants are associated with soil. They are associated with death, with bones, with carcasses. They are associated with life because they can grow fertilized off ‘death.'”

She put the horn down on the table. Lyudmilla hardly understood the gesture.

A tiny, limp little vine growing out of that wasted old horn. What was so special there?

And yet, Von Drachen and Pedros-Robles seemed curious about it.

“Creating life with magic is extremely hard.” Minerva said. “But if you think about it in just the right ways, and if you temper your expectations, it is not outright impossible.”

“Fascinating.” Von Drachen said, sarcastically. “What is your point, professor?”

Minerva nodded. “Such impatient students these days.”

She picked up the horn again and gave it a wan look. The vine that had grown from it was already parched and started to curl up and turn yellowed. It was in a sorry state.

There was a look in Minerva’s eyes almost like she felt responsible for it.

Lyudmilla could see that concern.

She’d seen that paternalistic expression directed her eye from others before.

And yet Minerva was just looking at a tiny insignificant vine she conjured up.

She continued the lecture, turning the horn over in her hands.

“Because the ambient magic of the world stirs for human thought, human thought controls reality. But we have a very incomplete understanding of our minds, so magic and spellcasting are very abstract. And yet, the way we learn, is by associating concepts together. We associate glyphs with specific sounds and words. Words associate with concepts to form our understanding of reality. In a way, every spell is just a really powerful Association between numerous concepts: it’s a shortcut, let’s call it, that tricks your brain into believing without a doubt that magic can happen. We call this field of study a fancier name, Metamagic, but it’s actually very philosophical.”

Minerva put down the horn and pointed her wand at it.

“But associations work both ways. They can be positive and negative,” she began to transition then to an incantation. “Otar’s Torch, lend me a day in the light of Sol.”

From her wand a beam of gentle warmth suffused the vine growing around the horn.

For a brief instant, the vine jerked; Lyudmilla thought that Minerva desired the vine to grow again by giving it light for photosynthesizing. However, the plant’s health took no better turn. Beyond that initial spasm, it would not grow nor become any more green. In fact, it seemed to be curling back in, withering around the bone that had borne it.

“This light is associated with Fire. Earth is resisting it, and the plant wont recover.”

Minerva lifted her wand, and put down both the horn and the instrument.

“Of course, I contrived that whole scenario. If my objective had been to try to grow a tiny vine that can be nourished by the sun, I could have done that with a different sort of effort. But I wanted to demonstrate to officer Pedros-Robles that ideas like ‘evil magic corrupting the land’ are more complicated than she thinks they are.” She said.

“I’m unconvinced, unfortunately.” Pedros-Robles replied. She shrugged.

“How about a more common example?” Minerva said. She seemed to smile even brighter at the challenge. “Say you’re trying to use magic to start a campfire. It obviously helps if you have flammable material; but not just because of the physical properties of, say, a pile of dry wood. Because even if you had wet wood, and even if you had a brick, you could use magic to set it on fire. But Burning has a strong affinity to Wood; there is strong positive association to the idea that you can burn wood, no matter the state the wood is in. So if you have wood, it’s just easier to cast fire magic on it than it is to cast it on a brick or on a rock. You could burn a puddle of water, if you tried hard enough, but there’s a strong negative association to the concept of burning water, so it would be a lot harder, maybe even impossibly harder, for a normal magician to burn water than to burn wood. Does that make sense, Lyudmilla? Officers?”

Lyudmilla felt like she was losing the plot at this point. “Duh? Obviously?”

Von Drachen shrugged. “I feel as if I’m being treated like a child.”

“Then let us end the childishness.” Minerva said.

In the next instant, Von Drachen’s orb stood dead still in the air as Minerva spoke.

“Calling upon Tyrants is a form of magic you call ‘Summoning.'”

Out of nowhere and quite bluntly, she said the exact words to get everyone in the room to draw their eyes open, where before they had been halfway shut by then.

“Summoning,” Minerva continued, without skipping a beat or letting anyone recover from her previous statement, reciting the facts as if she had been reading from a very forbidden book, “is essentially, an altered form of Conjuration that breaks the rules of Conjuring. Instead of creating a copy, you bring in an approximation of the real Tyrant, a vessel, that can spread its demesne and gradually become fully realized. It has life, agency, a personality; in fact it can have many of the original’s characteristics, even if you don’t know those powers or are aware of that personality yourself. This is because Tyrants are made of magic, and any magic that makes them will make the original in some form. In essence, any copy will become the original eventually. However, by its very nature summoning is chaotic. You can only barely control the form that the being will be summoned in, and which of its characteristics and personalities will be called.”

As far as Lyudmilla knew, Summoning was forbidden. While it was possible, perhaps, to know about Summoning, to know Summoning was illegal, evil, anarchic, a threat to civilization. Minerva must have known as much as she did in her capacity as a teacher to teach the vile-ness and degeneracy of Summoning. But Lyudmilla had seen Minerva do incredible magic before. Perhaps, could Minerva know how to Summon also?

If she did though, why would she be telling officers from Noct, the anti-magic nation?

At that moment, the orb was dutifully recording her.

Who knew who else was watching?

“Like any spell, it helps if you build powerful associations to help you Summon a Tyrant.” Minerva continued, again pausing for no one. “So having an object that is associated with it, or being in a location associated with it, or performing rituals that are strongly associated with it; all those things could possibly help a magician carry out a Summoning. Maybe not the fully formed or complete version of the Tyrant, but the Tyrant can piece itself together once it’s been summoned, since its Demesne will eventually spread and start gobbling up all the magic around it no matter where it shows up or in what form it appears. A Tyrant’s original will always be recreated.”

Von Drachen cracked a little grin. “Minerva Orizaga, are you trying to make me suspicious of you to deflect from your students? Is that your game now?”

“No.” Minerva bluntly and simply replied. “Only someone who knew nothing about magic would think that I am capable of Summoning by merely knowing those facts. What I just told you, is told to Otrarian schoolkids when they enter their first magic schools, to dissuade them from walking a path we view as evil and degenerate.”

Von Drachen’s face turned mildly surly once again. She closed her hands into fists.

Lyudmilla had not had formal magical education, so she had not received that same spiel. Her mind was also fuzzy on this concept of ‘Associations’ that Minerva was so fond of; but she knew Summoning was no good. She also knew maybe Otrarians spoke too soon when they considered themselves to have eliminated Summoning, as recent events had proven. Regardless, Minerva had just called Von Drachen a child.

The agent was visibly not taking it as well as she had past instances of disrespect.

Pedros-Robles interjected. “Wherever your knowledge came from, and whatever you’re capable of, Minerva Orizaga, you’ve made it clear to us that we are correct. You agree that the clearing in the forest is now associated with the Etherian, Moloch.”

Minerva shook her head. “It has a weak association to Tyrant summoning in general, and a strong association to the summoning of Moloch specifically: but I wouldn’t worry about that though. It is not any more helpful than trying to summon an Ayvartan water deity by standing in the Baryat river. Summoning is extremely chaotic and complex.”

“If it’s as you say, though, a strong association with Moloch would help, no?”

Von Drachen tried to interject again, but was immediately made to feel put in her place when Minerva retorted. Her tone was perfectly akin to a schoolteacher’s scolding.

“Zero points, officer. Moloch has associations too, and they are both positive and negative! That’s what I have been trying to get all of you to understand. Yes, Moloch is associated with fire strongly, and that clearing is associated with him. But because Moloch is contained now, it would be difficult to summon him again. He is now strongly associated to being defeated, contained, dispersed, quenched. The orb he was sealed in is also drained, and similarly broken, so it won’t be of much use for a ritual either.”

“That’s nonsense.” Von Drachen said. “So if I were to lay a beating on you, Minerva Oriziaga, would you be associated with defeat? Would you be unable to do magic?”

Minerva smiled softly.

Despite her previous intensity, she not only held the strength and command that a schoolteacher possessed when scolding, but also had the softness and harmlessness of one when she was treating the children with motherly care. Perhaps this too was part of the lesson. Lyudmilla wondered if all of this could be an Association as well.

“I’m not an anarchic being made purely out of magic, so if you could defeat me, officer, the magical effects would be rather more minor than the violence you would cause to my physical body. And of course, the violence you cause to me, and the ignominy of it, might stick to you too. In life, karma cuts us every which way.” Minerva responded.

Von Drachen turned around, with a flourish of her arm and started out the door.

She showed them her back, and they could not see what her expression became.

“I’m satisfied. We’ll talk again, Minerva Orizaga. Come, Catalina.”

Her voice was terse, and her tone low, but she did not sound too upset.

Pedros-Robles gave a gentle bow of the head before departing with her superior.

Lyudmilla watched them go with a sense of glowing admiration for her master.

Minerva had stood so tall against such intimidating foes! She had dismantled them with logic, facts and reason! Despite the circumstances, she never lost her cool!

“Master, that was incredible!”

Her heart swelled with pride, and quickly deflated with it.

As soon as the officers were out the door and around the corner, Minerva instantly collapsed back into her office chair, her eyes closed and a hanging-jaw expression on her face. A look of such lamentation and wretchedness took over her powerful Master then; Lyudmilla almost felt whipped in the face by the suddenness of the change.

On her desk, dropping so suddenly on her chair made the bone shake, and the vine crumbled, sliding from the cracks in the horn. Lyudmilla spotted a little nub of matter in the biggest crack in the horn: like a seed, or a bean, or something like that, already in it.

In the next instant, Minerva put a hand over her face and started to moan openly.

“Ah, damn it, I really hope they won’t go to the forest. I really hope they won’t go get the orb. I really don’t want to do that paperwork. I really don’t want to tag along for any of that. I hope that hocus-pocus dissuaded them from bothering at all. I really do! It’d all be so annoying, you know? I’m already so busy, and this would take so much time–“

She descended into practically mumbling.

Lyudmilla put her arms to her hips and scowled. It was her turn to act the schoolmarm, her gushing replaced with a rising anger at her suddenly disgraceful arcane master.

“Get yourself together, I can’t believe all of this! So you’re telling me you just lied to avoid having to tag along with their investigation? Because you’re fucking lazy?”

Minerva lifted her hands off her own face to peek at Lyudmilla.

Her expression was blank.

“I’m not lazy. I’m working smart, not hard. And at any rate. Some of it was facts, but there’s a lot open to interpretation, you know? Metamagic is above my pay-grade–“

“Fuck you.” Lyudmilla said, in as blunt a voice as she could manage.

Minerva blinked at her.

“With all due respect, Master, you’re full of shit! I’m going back to the dorms!”

As unfazed by Lyudmilla’s anger as by Von Drachen’s scrutiny, Minerva shrugged.

“This is why everyone’s becoming an engineer now, I guess.”

By the time Minerva was through with her sentence, Lyudmilla was already stomping out the door with her hands balled up at her sides and her teeth grit. Her Master was mostly unconcerned, however. After all, they were strongly associated now too.


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1.8: The Fire That Consumed Canaan

This chapter contains disturbing imagery, violence and death.


Supplicant: The Servants of a Tyrant. They are created from the demesne and serve the function of worshiping the Tyrant. Like blood cells carrying oxygen throughout the body, supplicants grant the Tyrant easy access to the magic of the demesne. Should a Tyrant lose its demesne, it can survive so long as it is worshiped, and its Supplicants can survive by continuing to worship, or by constructing a new demesne for the Tyrant to occupy. Their power and appearance and their number reflects the state of the demesne and the Tyrant.


Lyudmilla’s ‘autopilot’ mentality crumbled as she soon as she found herself faced with the dreadful creature of girders and gears and cables that Moloch had become. Despite the difficulties she found doing magic with the so-called limiter off her homunculus, she had managed to keep a semblance of cool. Compartmentalizing her fear and anxiety, she managed to outwit the monster and aid Minerva with a bit of luck and good timing.

It was a fight, a battle; she had fought those before. Fighting wasn’t easy, but she could.

But she’d fought people. She froze at the sight of a monstrosity dozens of meters high, towering over her. Its shadow could have been its own separate malignant beast.

Milla felt as if she had been thrust into a completely new reality, as if pushed through a mirror into another world, and the glass had cut her, and her face and chest had felt the impact of crashing through the barrier. She struggled to stand, craning her head up as high as it would go and still not seeing all of the monster that stood in front of her.

Something had gone terribly wrong in the world around them.

Things had stopped making sense. Everything had gone stark mad.

She heard Minerva say, in a low, breathless voice, “is this his legend?”

She didn’t understand it.

Milla had seen magical creatures before. One could not avoid them! There were commonplace things, like kobolds, gnomes; and there were all kinds of videos on the internet about bigger things. Army camera footage declassified after a decade by activists that showed men firing rockets and guns and wand blasts at Mother Hydra before the peace had been brokered; cryptid style videos of blurry beasts in dense jungles far away; quickly cut news footage of academy diplomats meeting with ancient things; and so on.

And yet here she stood face to face, in the dense, hot atmosphere of this demesne, in the presence of a real Tyrant. Those beasts whose history ran parallel to all of humanity, who when mindless threatened to destroy the world and when sentient threatened to rule it. Those primordial beasts who were magic in natural form. Moloch, Lord of the Wildfire!

She was nothing in its presence. She was reduced to quivering, aware suddenly of death.

Everything was insubstantial. Under her the floor felt hollow. Above the sky was gaseous.

“Lyudmilla?”

Minerva looked over her shoulder briefly, standing before Milla like a guardian.

Ahead of them, the looming fleshless cow head of Moloch unhinged its jaw by the turn of a gear, and smoke billowed out from a dark orifice between the bones. He raised with much effort one of metallic skeletal arms, and flexed the scissor-blade claws at the end.

Minerva whipped back around to face him and raised her wand.

Her homunculus lit up and rapidly processed the gestures for her spell, a globe of vibrating, unstable force that flew from the tip of her wand and struck Moloch right in the jaw. She waved her wand as if conducting instruments, and from the tip several more of these globes peeled off and hurtled toward the monster, crashing into its jaw and eyesockets and shoulders. As Minerva’s waving grew faster the barrage became more intense, like a machine gun of thick magic bullets. All the while Minerva mumbled the maintenance chant, continuing to channel the spell alongside her homunculus.

Not one of these missiles left a mark on Moloch save for thin trails of smoke.

As the projectiles crashed and sputtered on its metal surface, the monster’s arm lit up in red. Seemingly hundreds of vein-like, pulsating, glowing orange and red lines traced and crisscrossed the length of its gear-studded shoulder and down the cable-laden forearm. Steam and smoke billowed from the gaps in the elbow and from the joints of the claws.

“Target is concentrating heat in the left arm–”

Minerva’s homunculus aired its warning as Moloch’s claw descended upon them.

It shot toward the platform like a rocket and Milla was sure she would die.

Her limbs felt as heavy and immobile as stone.

She shut her eyes, and turned her head as if about to be slapped.

A wave of hot air blew past her and she heard an ungodly metal on metal screeching.

She felt the ground rumble.

Soon Milla realized her body was left untouched and she opened her eyes.

Moloch’s metal arm lay twisted and smashed palm-up against the metal floor.

In front of Milla, Minerva stood, her hands glowing brilliantly red.

She had grabbed hold of Moloch’s arm, her claws (claws?) digging glowing orange holes into the metal. She looked as if she had taken both his hands into her own in an arm wrestling contest, and smashed aside the defeated arm in the process. Moloch’s body, suspended in front of them, seemed unaffected, and its cow-skull head did not emote.

Red smoke blew from Minerva’s hands as she pulled her claws loose from the metal and then vaulted over the jagged wrist of the mechanical arm and onto the forearm.

Milla watched in awe as Minerva ran up the arm without the impediment.

Moloch started to raise its right arm but could not do so fast enough to stop her.

Soon as her feet hit the creature’s shoulder she leaped easily onto the cow-skull head, standing with a foot on one horn and another on its crown. Smoke billowed from the creature’s eyesockets, mouth and its open chest. Glowing red veins streaked across both its broken and functioning arms and the gears all over its body grinded violently.

Moloch was struggling to counterattack, but it was far too slow to respond.

Atop him, Minerva raised her hand skyward, holding her wand, cried out “Barik!

A massive black and red aura collected around her, thicker than any Milla had seen.

She was brimming with power. Her whole body lit up as bright as her claws had been.

Suddenly several points on Moloch’s body started to light up.

Milla realized it was everywhere Minerva had shot a missile before.

She must have done as Moloch had before and hidden something in her projectiles!

Sudes!” Minerva cried out.

At her word, from each of the glowing points a thin, small metal prong surfaced.

Her purpose became obvious when, from the seething, smoking sky overhead a dozen bolts of lightning descended on Moloch’s body. Minerva leaped out of the way as the lightning smashed Moloch’s crown open and spread across the metal, striking every glowing point along the surface. Gears blew out, cables burst; high-pressure jets of smoke escaped the joints of the metal body and split apart the metal linkages in the frame.

Moloch thrashed in front of Milla like a puppet jerked about on its strings.

High above them the metallic supports and cranes and manipulator arms holding the monstrosity aloft tore with a terrific noise. Unceremoniously the metal body broke free and fell, its jaw clapping, its arms flailing. Milla nearly took a tumble, the floor shaking under her as the creature smashed into the platform and slid off into the abyss.

While Moloch was in the midst of vanishing, Minerva dropped back onto the platform.

Her hands, wreathed in a furious red aura, looked as big as her torso for an instant.

Then without transition they were simply back the way they always had been.

Almost as if Milla had hallucinated the whole thing. She blinked rapidly in confusion.

Minerva looked at her, and gave her a thumbs up with a sweet little grin.

Milla stood silent for a minute, sweat trickling down her nose and over her dry lips.

“Is it gone?” She asked.

Minerva sighed. “God, I hope so–”

Temperature spike detected,”

Minerva raised her wrist up to stare in shock at the homunculus’ screen directly.

Milla however read the Alternate-Reality text overlaid in air by the homunculus.

It had started at forty degrees, simultaneously very hot but not convincingly hot at all for a place surrounded by fire and made largely of metal. Milla thought in a place like this her shoes would be melting and her hair would have caught fire. Then the number started to climb so quickly that it made no sense. Surely Milla would have been a desiccated corpse in those kinds of temperatures, but she only felt a little bit hot.

Hot enough to sweat, to have a little trouble breathing–

Sweat started to dribble down her forehead. Long rivulets of sweat, trailing down her face, down her neck, between her breasts. Sweat streaking down her thighs.

Each breath she took ripped down her neck like a cloud of pepper.

“It’s the furnace! The furnace was the Tyrant all along!” Minerva realized.

Milla stumbled toward her, and grabbed onto her arm, coughing.

Minerva’s face seemed to go pale. She was sweating also, though not as badly.

“Lyudmilla!”

Her hand turned red again.

She pressed it down on Milla’s forehead.

For a split second Milla remembered an unpleasant feeling.

A child, drowned in the baptismal water–

But this was fire, a great fire enveloping her and for the most minute possible instant, the smallest unit of experience that could still pass off as a lived and breathed feeling, Milla felt pain. An unimaginable pain like burning to a crisp from head to toe.

It was there and then gone and yet,felt so thoroughly that it shocked her.

She gasped, and screamed, and ripped herself from Minerva’s touch.

Sweat dripped off her body like the thin rivulets of water following a fresh shower.

But she could stand, she could move and breathe. It wasn’t getting any hotter.

“Please, I’ll explain everything when we’re safe, but right now, I need your help.”

Minerva looked at her with a curious expression. Concern, probably. But visibly, it was shame. Her defiance and confidence was gone for a small moment, and she looked deeply, awfully ashamed, in the way Milla herself, often felt ashamed. When she was caught smoking or asked about her childhood or her parents; when she hit too hard with a ball at the sports club; or when she looked away from a girl who was too pretty–

In those fiery, eerie eyes, there was so much pain and shame and helplessness.

Milla couldn’t help but feel that she had to help Orizaga now.

She couldn’t look at that vulnerability and not feel ashamed of her own cowardly self.

She spread open the pages of her grimoire and held it by the spine.

“Tell me what to do, Professor.” She said.

Spared from the heat of the arena she felt it much easier to keep her wits.

Minerva smiled a little. “I’m just a teaching assistant.”

On the edges of the arena, smoke belched into the sky from unseen chimneys.

Around the demesne the fiery pit burned brighter and redder than it ever had.

Once more the platform began to rumble under Milla and Minerva.

All of the gears and mechanisms hanging in the air around the demesne, seemingly attached to nothing, turned with noise and violence, suddenly alive. Though their positions correlated to no rational device, turning and pulling on nothing, the machine seemed to have some effect on the platform. As they cranked away at the air the platform shook more and more strongly, until from the abyss the smashed Moloch machine started rising. Two interlocking pieces extended from the platform, attaching the Moloch animatronic to the platform furnace and supporting him, and more cranes and arms descended and attached a mess of cables, pipes and pumps to the machine.

Grimly, several arms twisted Moloch’s head into place and snapped its limbs together.

It was like they were building up a toy. A figurine of what the God should’ve been like.

“Wyrm.”

Its call hissed out into the air and sounded filthy. It seemed to come from under them.

You stole my fire to begin your journey to the throne of the world, and yet, you stand before me now so feeble, so alone, not one supplicant to your name!”

Suddenly the Moloch machine began to smoke and turned an offensively bright red.

“I’m insulted! I’m offended! I’m vexed! Return my flame so I can be king!”

Red-hot gears on the cow-skull’s cheek turned its mouth open.

Red particulate aura traces, and smoke, and fire, all began to collect in its mouth.

It was as if the creature were vacuuming the surrounding heat and shaping it.

“Witness the Doom of Canaan!”

Jets of smoke burst from the back of the Moloch machine’s head.

Its mouth erupted in a stream of red.

Milla leaped away in one direction and Minerva in the opposite.

Pure heat swept past them like a hurtling comet, a red wall slicing across the platform.

A sudden wave of gas followed the attack, and threw Milla back in mid-air.

She landed ungracefully, crying out as she slammed into the metal floor.

Had it been any denser she would’ve been broken upon it.

But she felt almost like she had landed on a sheet of foil rather than a sturdy floor.

She raised her head from the ground.

When the fire subsided, there was a residual slag, glowing red, bubbling across the floor.

This substance formed a line at every point stricken by Moloch’s attack.

It was as if Moloch’s attack was not a beam or laser at all, as it seemed to Milla from the fanciful things she had seen in popular fiction. Instead she started to think he had sprayed molten metal at them so fast that it just seemed like a giant stream of heat.

In a sudden panic, she looked around for Minerva and thankfully found her on the opposite edge of the platform, doubled over, breathing heavily. Minerva raised her own head and she and Milla made eye contact. Minerva waved; she gestured off the edge of the platform, and then to the Moloch Machine, which was hunched over and steaming.

“I’ll distract him! Jump down into the furnace! That’s the real Tyrant!” She shouted.

Milla blinked. She looked behind herself, over the edge of the platform.

There were all kinds of pipes and devices and chutes but no clear way inside.

Eyes open wide, mouth hanging and quivering slightly, she shook her head at Minerva. Her twintails swung this way and that with the effort. She started to feel hopeless again–

There was a terrifying, dominant sound, the shearing of metal, the grinding of a gear.

Heat began to pump into the Moloch machine once more.

Again the cow-skull head on the animatronic swung its jaw open.

“You’re protected from heat Lyudmilla! Go!” Minerva shouted.

She then stood up straight and swung her wand at the machine.

From thin air in front of her a stake flew out, as fast as a professional baseball pitch.

Flying without resistance, it stuck in one of the Moloch Machine’s ribs.

Barik!”

Minerva summoned another bolt of lightning and this one launched out of her wand.

The bolt struck the stake and lashed across the Machine but could not stop its attack.

All of the arms and cranes reoriented the monster, jerking it toward Minerva.

Even as the lightning tore through its body, the heat around it grew fiercer.

It was her she wanted; it didn’t even care about Milla at all.

This is the fire that consumed Canaan!

A second blast of heat and molten metal erupted from the machine’s mouth.

In an instant it sliced through the air, a cannon shot to Minerva’s mere fastball pitch.

Minerva leaped.

She thrust skyward, stirring the air in her wake as if she had flapped massive wings.

Milla saw her form disappear inside the mass rushing her way.

Her heart sank–

Within the gas billowing up after the shot, Milla saw a speck of something.

Minerva shot out of the cloud toward the machine, dashing in the air.

Before she could cast anything the Moloch machine spread its mouth once more.

Milla realized Minerva, for all that she could dance in the air, could not stop it shooting.

Following the teacher’s body, leaping around as if from cloud to cloud, she also realized what she herself could do. Her eyes settled on the Moloch body and the pipes and cables.

She held her grimoire by the spine, with a thumb inside the pages, and took off running.

Moloch fired a third blast from its mouth, its breath attack sweeping across the sky. Minerva continued to dash to and fro around its head, getting in a kick here and there as she used the machine as a platform to take off again. She was a mere nuisance, but she was a great distraction. Without resistance, Milla ran the length of the platform, to the edge where the machine was connected. It grew larger and larger as she approached it, until she had to crane her head up high as it could to try to watch the fighting play out.

Milla looked down off the edge of the platform, breathing slowly and heavily as an unimaginable heat emanated nearby. It was as if she stood steps away from a star. This must have been what standing on the sun felt like, she thought. Looking down she could see where all the pipes and cables and metal supports reached out from the furnace, like a replacement spinal cord winding up into the hovering Moloch Machine from below.

Taking in a deep breath, and swallowing hard, she leaped down toward the pipes.

She morbidly expected her whole body to melt and end up a puddle atop the monster’s makeshift spine; though she landed clumsily and hit herself again, she found herself surprisingly whole. Her hands, touching the metal, did not sizzle or hurt. It felt eerily room temperature, no hotter than anything else. Bolting up to her feet, she looked around for a way into the furnace. Far overhead, Minerva and Moloch dueled mightily.

Milla did not need to look very long.

Right in front of her, the platform bore a massive, bull-like face. Those smokestacks Milla had seen sticking out resembled horns when viewed from this angle, and the mass connecting the Moloch Machine to the furnace stuck out of the bull’s cavernous mouth like a tongue. She could easily run across the spine and into the furnace’s interior.

There was a plan hatching in her head but it depended on what she found inside.

She made for the gaping maw only to stop a few steps short.

Several pairs of glowing eyes approached from inside the furnace.

Intermittent flashing from inside the furnace revealed many of the kilnling creatures that had been trying to harvest Cheryl and the others. They dragged themselves forward, their exposed ribs snapping open and closed like jaws. The Kilnlings lurched out of the furnace in clumsy stopping-and-starting movements, as if their locomotion went on and off the way the burners inside the furnace did. They were very large and solid, however, and their size and presence alone was enough to put Milla on the defensive.

She took a step back out of the furnace’s shadow and grit her teeth.

She remembered an old commander who admonished her for cowardice.

Tightening her grip on the spine of her grimoire, she swept her hand over the pages.

Kladenets!” She called out.

Her grimoire left her hand of its own accord and hovered off the ground.

Standing between her and the approaching monsters, it produced an image of a sword.

It seemed an ordinary sword, the butt coming to rest a few centimeters off the pages.

Milla thrust her hand forward with the palm to the enemy.

Her grimoire launched toward the kilnlings, and the glowing sword swung at them.

No arm held it, and it appeared to have no mass, but the blade nonetheless swept across the head of one of the kilnlings and battered the monster aside. Rather than slice through them the sword rang aloud on impact, screaming metal on metal as it clubbed the monsters. Despite its visible position atop the grimoire, the blade had deceptive reach. It struck as if held on an arm that could stretch, twist, and handle a blade deftly.

From head to head the blade turned, striking in turn each kilnling as they approached, and rattling their skulls with every hit. When stricken the beasts toppled off their legs and onto their sides, reacting as if concussed. No sword could have rent the metal on them, not even this one, but a good clubbing made an effective deterrent instead.

Milla rushed forward, and again by itself the grimoire charged with her, and the blade threw its terrible weight every which way. Dazed kilnlings fell aside and Milla charged past them, never staying long enough to pick a real fight. They were big and she was not terribly damaging them, but it was not her intention to brawl with them at all.

Leaping and dodging her way past the monsters, Milla penetrated the mouth of the furnace and instantly found herself faced with its immense interior. A short hallway, guarded by kilnlings, led to a massive set of interior works that funneled metal to burners, which fired off every so often to melt the metal instantly. Then the metal was dropped into a massive, glowing red pit recessed into the ground in the center of the furnace, where it was siphoned through red-hot pipes out to the Moloch Machine.

Everything was decayed, eroded, rusted, sharp and haphazard, like the kilnlings were.

Every surface in the demesne wore its armor like moth-eaten clothes.

Behind her the stricken kilnlings began to get back on their legs, and in front of her, several more started to close in from the furnace interior. She had surrounded herself.

She was not driven to panic despite this. In fact, she smirked instead.

Milla had figured there was something important inside the furnace, after fighting on top of it. She could not have been entirely sure, not being a student of engineering, but she knew it was not just a hunk of metal as it had been prior to Moloch’s transfiguration. She knew it was home to a lot of those pipes and cranes that she saw everywhere on Moloch.

Even so, she had no ordinary means to affect such a massive thing. She knew no spells that could launch an armor-piercing rocket or set off C-4 inside this furnace and damage its works. Mages could throw around lightning and fireballs and cast massive reavings and disintegrations at people and things but the larger and sturdier the affected object, the more raw power had to go into it. She could batter kilnlings, but she could not tear down this massive edifice by herself. Lyudmilla Kholodva did not have raw power.

She was tired, too.

Even at her least tired she might not have been able to tear down the furnace. She did not even really know many spells. She figured the basic packet from the Academy did not include a full combat suite; so she was relying on things she picked up here and there.

Lacking in options and in the raw strength to execute them, Lyudmilla substituted a bit of inventiveness. She was not surrounded; she had the kilnlings where she wanted them.

Sometimes, physics alone could be a force multiplier for a dynamic magician.

“Lets hope this works!”

Closing her fist, she caused the sword atop her grimoire to dissipate.

In a blink the book was back in her hands.

She held it by both covers and thrust the pages forward, trying her best to copy Minerva.

She had read her lips as she cast, and seen something of the gestures.

As for mnemonics, Milla just tried to focus on stakes and hoped for the best.

Sudes!”

A metal stake; a metal stake; a metal stake–

It was crude mnemonics, but it had an effect.

Like Minerva, her spell conjured a metal stake that flew out from between the grimoire’s pages. Lacking the precision of a wand or advanced knowledge of the spell, Milla’s casting went wild. She felt the metal portion of her very human, mixed metal and fire aura, suddenly peeling almost right off. Her whole body glowed black and red and the black burst out of her into a wave of particulate aura, lost magic consumed by the spell.

Some of this particulate, but not all, attached to the stake in the instant of conjuration.

Instead of a clean shape, it became irregular, lumpy, its weight poorly distributed.

When the stake exploded into being out in front of her, Milla felt like it not only ripped up her aura and took it with it but also ripped the breath from her lungs.

She nearly doubled over in pain, but she retained enough composure to watch.

Flying haphazardly with the speed of an artillery shell, the stake bowled past several kilnlings in front of Milla and sailed over the red pit and embedded into a gear.

No one spell could stop the machines from turning. Though there was a stake clearly stuck in the gears, the conveyors continued to turn, the burners continued to blast, and metal continued to be fed into the Moloch Machine. They had no physical logic after all. Many were not even attached to anything, and operated in an almost metaphorical way.

Milla never intended to target the machines themselves.

She was gritting her teeth from the reckless exertion, but still managing to grin.

Behind her, every Kilnling struck by her sword glowed momentarily.

Instead of following the initial taps with the Alwi spell Barik, as Minerva had, she instead reached for a trick closer to home. One that would not cook her alive from inexperience.

Taking in air, calm even as the remaining kilnlings started to close, Milla shouted:

“Lord Pherkhan, we become to metal as Earth is to the Moon! Pherkhan’s magnetism!”

As she pronounced each word a little bolt played about her grimoire and hands.

She needed all the focus she could get. A full incantation gave her time to gather energy.

Milla locked eyes on the stake and reached out mentally.

It was her favorite spell of the suite developed by the Rus War-Mage, Pherkhan.

At first the little bolts extended from one end of her grimoire to the other like the poles on a horseshoe magnet, suspended between the open pages. After receiving the full command, they traveled up the grimoire and left the pages altogether. As soon as the bolts leaped off the metal-bound corners of the grimoire they extended across the entire furnace in an invisible instant, connecting the numerous kilnlings behind and around Milla with the stake she stuck to the interior of the furnace. Dozens of tiny bolts of lightning danced between the kilnlings and the stake like blurry, flashing strings.

For a moment the kilnlings were given pause, but their relentlessness soon returned.

When the kilnlings resumed their advance, the bolts sharply, suddenly contracted.

Had they exhibited any kind of magical talent that instant could’ve been crucial.

The Kilnlings did not cast spells; so Milla’s sloppiness instead had a devastating effect.

Dozens of the metallic monsters all around Milla and in the interior of the furnace works launched into the air as if their weight meant nothing. They bounced as readily as rubber balls, drawn toward the stake as if lassoed by the strength of a giant. Milla ducked and covered her head with her grimoire. Chunks of metal flew off their bodies as the kilnlings collided with the walls and with each other hundreds of times on their way toward the stake. For a moment the hallway into the furnace works was a churning, vibrating mess of ricocheting metal. Once free of the confines of the hallway, the kilnling mass slammed into the stake faster and harder than Lyudmilla could’ve ever imagined.

Boilers cracked and burst under the violence, cranes were smashed into the furnace pit, gears knocked out of place fell heavily upon the conveyors and other works and battered the whole mechanism apart. The furnace roared and quaked as great masses of metal rained down into the pit, clogging up the lifeline to the Moloch Machine outside. Molten metal began to rise out of the pit and spill over into the corridor. Around Milla the walls started to crack and glow red, and to bleed molten metal as if grievously wounded.

That’s as far as she had planned for. It was time to run!

Milla turned around and bolted for the exit, a wave of molten metal rushing after her.

Crawling up the walls as if chasing her, the cracks in the furnace spewed and sputtered with fire and gas and searing red metal that landed around Milla in fist-sized globs. She ducked and dodged the streams, swatted away the metal with her grimoire, all the while running as fast as she could, and breathing in less and less air as it seemed to burn up.

Her vision started to waver, and the tunnel felt endlessly long, the outside world too far.

Struggling for breath, she screamed as loud as she could, “Sudes!”

In a flash of light, some of the metal flying around her collected itself into a stake.

Once fully formed the lumpy, misshapen stake shot off into the distance like a rocket.

It ate up almost all her remaining metal aura, but she had purposefully held back.

She only needed a small stake this time.

Milla pulled a chain from her blazer pocket and wrapped it around her arm.

She shut her grimoire on the end of the chain as her legs gave out on her.

Falling, she mumbled again the name of the great Pherkan and prayed.

Blue bolts of energy trailed up and down her body.

She jerked forward, and back and suddenly launched out of the tunnel.

Screaming, Milla leaped clear over the ever-burning pit.

Behind her the mouth of the bull-head furnace choked with molten metal.

All around the demesne the fires started to go out, the gears stopped turning.

Fuzzy lines like the static on a busted television started to divide the walls, the seemingly endless pit and the skybox of the demesne, and once those cleared more of the outside world, the real world, became visible again through the distortion of the demesne.

Sailing off into nothingness, Lyudmilla watched with a self-satisfied little grin as the Moloch Machine began to choke, its cow-skull head leaking molten metal from the eyesockets and from the pipeline inside its jaws. It spewed its red-hot pyroclastic attack into the air at random, vomiting up metal with no target, screaming and out of control.

As she fell she saw Minerva, briefly, and saw her light up brighter red than ever.

Wyrm!” Moloch screamed. “Wyrm!

Minerva’s voice responded, deeper and richer and more beautiful than ever.

I’m, Minerva Orizaga. Wyrm isn’t here. Thanks again for the fire.

Something like a massive whip (a tail?) lashed out from Minerva and cleaved Moloch.

Just as she watched Moloch break apart, she heard Minerva’s homunculus again.

Entity MOLOCH unstable. Temperature drop exponential. Containment successful.”

Next thing she knew, Lyudmilla Kholodova hit the ground. It was dirty, dusty.

She felt as if she had been dunked suddenly in freezing water.

Hugging herself, Milla squirmed and twisted herself onto her back.

There were trees. A canopy; she could see the blue sky and the stars.

Nothing was burning anymore.

Milla pushed herself up from the ground, to her knees.

How much time had passed? She scanned her surroundings. It was still dark.

Suddenly she heard a scream, a girl’s scream.

Milla struggled up to her feet, stumbling and swaying, a little dizzy.

She managed to maneuver herself through the trees and found herself back at the clearing where the Moloch statue had first been unearthed. She arrived in time to see the crumbling statue, Phillip struggling to stand and trying to snake away, and that armored man, Ajax, menacingly approaching Amber, Jenn and Cheryl. The girls squirmed away from him on the ground, crawling on their backs until they hit the treeline again.

“Let go of that.” Ajax hissed. His voice was eerie. It sounded as if it was coming from a broken radio in his helmet, hissing and scratching and becoming inaudible for a second or two in the middle of this syllable or that. It made it difficult to understand him.

He was dragging one of his feet, and his hands were limp at his sides.

Milla summoned her grimoire to her hands, and stumbled out of the forest.

“Get away from them!” She cried.

He turned his head partially over his shoulder. His eyes glowed on and off, sparking.

Ajax stared at Milla, and then at his own feet, where his two subordinates lay beaten.

He stared at the Moloch statue, broken, its once incredible aura sputtering away.

He charged without warning–

But in the direction of the treeline, to escape!

Milla grit her teeth and made to follow. Could she get him?

Ajax did not get far; in the next instant he bounced back into the clearing and hit the dirt.

From the wood, Minerva appeared.

Vorra leaped down from the canopy, visibly wounded, but alive and seemingly mobile.

“Milord, he is faltering.” She said.

They had Ajax surrounded. Judging by his last attempt, he was on his last legs.

Ajax picked one of his subordinate’s clubs off the floor.

“Alwi trash– you–” His voice broke up. “Undone– I’ll–”

He threw himself forward and swung his weapon.

It stretched to cover the gap and came at Minerva’s side like a whip.

She held out her wand at her side and the metal bounced off of it.

Ambling casually toward Ajax, Minerva then swung her wand at him wordlessly.

A wave of force blasted the weapon off Ajax’s hands, and took several fingers with it.

Surprisingly he did not whimper, did not cry out, despite this brutal amputation.

He was clearly done fighting but he continued to try to escape.

Minerva would have none of it.

Ajax struggled to stand; a second blast from Minerva’s wand threw him back to the ground. Her eyes were fixed on him with a cold, steely hatred that shook Milla in its intensity. Each step she took, Minerva swung her wand, and Ajax was blasted in his chest, and thrown back; blasted in his legs until the armor was pummeled off them; and blasted in his head, jerking his neck left and right until his battered helm fell off.

Beneath the plate legs, there was nothing. Beneath the breastplate, nothing.

There was nothing beneath the helmet either.

Ajax had been nothing but a construct. Had it been the entire time? Had he swapped?

Minerva disregarded the empty suit of armor and walked over to the girls.

She knelt beside them with a smile. “You all have been through a lot. It feels silly to ask this, but are you ok? Are you hurt? Do you need a hospital? Can you talk to the police?”

Amber and Jenn stared dumbfounded at Minerva for a second before throwing themselves at her, hugging her and crying, shaken thoroughly by their experience. Minerva seemed to not know what to do other than stand there and allow herself to be thoroughly grappled. She eventually started rubbing their backs in a motherly way.

Vorra hid in the wood, sitting solemnly with her back to a tree, breathing heavily.

Cheryl sat at the edge of the clearing, staring at the Ajax armor, empty-eyed. In her hands she was turning over the orange-red orb that had come out of the Moloch statue’s head.

Somehow despite everything, they all had survived that mess.

Lyudmilla sighed with relief. She nearly dropped her grimoire out of exhaustion.

She managed to keep a steady grip on it.

So she was ready when she heard the dirt sifting.

“Where do you think you’re going?”

She turned her head and fixed a murderous glare on Phillip, his face caked in his own blood, weeping, gritting what was left of his teeth through a broken mouth. He had been trying to crawl up the steeper side of the clearing and out of anyone’s sight. He said nothing, and merely stopped where he had been. Milla pointed her grimoire his way.

“Sit down or I’ll sit you down.” Milla said.

From across the clearing, Minerva let go of Amber and Jenn, who then clung to Cheryl.

“Yes, Phillip Theimer, we’ll need to repair your face so you can talk to the police.”

Minerva spoke, and Milla thought she saw Phillip shake. He knelt down, giving up.

Whatever glorious night he thought he might have was now over.


Next morning, having gotten no sleep and talked to too many different uniformed persons, Lyudmilla Kholodova and Minerva Orizaga found themselves in the office of Miriam Hirsch, who was disheveled, having had to dress quickly and arrive at the Humanities’ main department very early to deal with the ugly situation. Word was getting around about what happened. Police were investigating, the students were variously in hospital care and out of it, and the Department itself was in a furor about it.

Minerva rarely spoke to Miriam Hirch without Beatrix around. Her office felt empty and oppressive. There was nothing separating Minerva from Miriam, nothing shielding her.

Miriam had an intimating expression, full of barely restrained anger.

“University Police tried to explain it to me, and I couldn’t believe a word I was hearing, so I would like to hear it from you instead. What the hell happened last night, Minerva?”

Minerva was annoyed by everything, but she tried to keep things matter-of-fact and she spoke so quickly and in such a tone that Miriam, try as she might, couldn’t interrupt.

“It is my understanding that at around midnight three boys identifying themselves with the Otrarian nationalist group ‘Iron Flags’ cooperated with Phillip Theimer to lead several girls to a clearing in the Whispering Wood with the intent to perform a dark ritual to summon the Tyrant Moloch. They intended to make sacrifices to a statue that had been popularly mistaken to represent Baphomet that had appeared suddenly some time ago in the woods. This statue had a carved orb of Agnicite that was sealing some of Moloch’s demesne, and upon its release, the Tyrant was unleashed. However, it was severely weakened from having to express his main element of Fire through its antagonistic element, Metal. With Lyudmilla Kholodova’s help, I contained the Tyrant and detained Phillip, Trent and Arnes. Ajax, the fourth conspirator, was piloting a construct from afar all along. I called the authorities and an investigation is underway.”

At several points in the story Miriam Hirch seemed to want to interrupt as if it was inherently a ridiculous thing to say. Minerva talked over her enough times to keep her quiet and get her whole message across. At the end of it, Miriam sat dumbfounded.

“You contained a Tyrant?” Miriam asked at last, regaining a bit of composure.

“Yes.”

Minerva reached into her coat, withdrew the fire orb and put it on Miriam’s desk.

“Put that under the tightest security you’ve got, ma’am.” She said.

Miriam picked up the orb and instantly shook with goosebumps and dropped it.

“My word!”

“It’s not something to take lightly, that’s for sure.” Minerva said.

Miriam looked momentarily offended. She left the orb on her desk.

“Setting all that of that aside for later. I want to know about the facts I can confirm right now. What happened to Phillip Theimer? He claims you injured him.” Miriam said.

She had seemingly ignored the part where Minerva implicated him in the crime.

Of course, the word of a white Otrarian boy with a donor father carried a lot of weight.

Minerva sighed. “He was attacked by the leader of the Flags, nom de guerre Ajax. Ajax had manipulated him into providing his own girlfriend, Cheryl von Schutzherr, as human material for the ritual. Whether he intended to seal Moloch in her or otherwise–”

“You realize how ridiculous that sounds?” Miriam said. “The Theimer family have been supporters of the Academy for generations. They’re a completely above-board family.”

She sounded strangely and specifically outraged about this.

“I say nothing of the family; only what I collected at the crime scene.” Minerva said.

In truth she hadn’t been there at the time, but she had Lyudmilla’s testimony.

Miriam sighed heavily and rubbed her palms over her own face.

“Minerva, I support the teachers under my direction, but to engage in such unserious he-said she-said talk, and where it concerns a student claiming you assaulted him–”

Lyudmilla cut Miriam off and spoke, her accent thicker owing to her anger.

“Ms. Orizaga did not hurt him at all! I’ll testify to that. I smacked Phillip in the face!”

“You’ll speak when prompted, Miss Kholodova!” Miriam shouted. “Tread lightly!”

Lyudmilla scowled at her, squeezing her own knees as she sat on the couch.

Miriam sighed and rubbed her own forehead and started sifting through some papers.

Minerva’s heart beat faster. What was going on here?

She had contained a Tyrant and saved the lives of those girls.

Did she not care? Was she ready to ignore all of that as a fabrication?

This was so ridiculous, unfair and unjust to an unrealistic degree, and yet, possible.

A fleetingly possible thing that somehow happened all of the time.

Miriam was just outright ignoring her words and defending Theimer.

Minerva was an Alwi, a person hated in this society. She had this etched in her skin.

Was Miriam trying to frame her for the entire situation right now?

“Ma’am, I’m not sure I understand what your point is. Please speak plainly.”

 

“Fact of the matter is, Minerva, Lyudmilla Kholodova is not exactly a trustworthy prospect in a situation like this. Phillip Theimer claims he is innocent and a victim. I can believe Trent and Arnes were implicated in something, though goodness knows what, but I’m struggling to believe stuff about rituals and tyrants and a mysterious fourth man.”

Minerva couldn’t tell if Miriam was really so tortured over this or faking all of it.

She certainly sounded and acted annoyed and uncomfortable but it seemed all too easy for her to abandon Minerva and Lyudmilla at this juncture for well-moneyed words.

“And all this talking about Tyrants– yes you have that orb, but it’s just, it’s too much! I cannot believe that a Tyrant was summoned, that it attacked, that you contained it–”

“I’ll give you the data collected by my Homunculus!” Minerva shouted at her.

Miriam glared at Minerva, clearly offended now at her tone. “I don’t want it! Ugh. It’s not enough I have to deal with Beatrix now you’re also making problems. At least when Beatrix comes up with some scheme to endanger students she owns up without excuses!”

“Now it’s a scheme? Nationalists attack your students and suddenly it’s my scheme?”

The Department Head was taken aback by this and quickly retreated from her rhetoric.

“I’m not saying that!” Miriam said. “I’m not accusing you! Goodness. You’re clearly giving in to emotion, Minerva, we can’t have this discussion and I can’t defend you if you’re showing this kind of attitude! It’s Academy policy to first side with the students–”

Minerva intended to shout ‘you were never going to defend me,’ but then someone did.

Bursting through the door into the office was the blonde-haired, starry-eyed, and clearly furious young lady known only as Cheryl, but actually named Cheryl von Schutzherr.

She stormed into the room and charged right up to Miriam’s desk, her eyes afire.

Behind her, Beatrix Kolsa ambled in with a bewildered expression, and shrugged.

“You’re the Department Head? What the hell is this?” Cheryl said. “Why did you summon Ms. Orizaga and Milla instead of that no-good piece of shit who just tried to kill me!”

Miriam blinked, taken aback. “Language! Ms. Schutzherr, I’m just, I wanted to–”

“Minerva Orizuh– Minerva saved my life! Milla Khalod– Milla saved my life!”

Minerva and Lyudmilla both wilted. Cheryl couldn’t pronounce their surnames.

“That’s–” Miriam seemed to shrink in her chair. “That’s– well– Phillip Theimer also–”

“I’m sure that fucking rat has something to say too! Then he should say it to my face! To all our faces! To us and to Amber and Jenn, he tried to get us all killed for his buddies in the Iron Whatever! Instead he’s trying to hide behind you, isn’t he? You’re covering up for him! He should be in this room so I can shout his face off along with yours!”

Miriam turned bright red and nearly fell over with her chair. “Why I– I never–”

“You listen to me! I’ll tell the cops, I’ll tell the courts, I’ll tell the tabloids, I’ll talk to anyone! I’ll vlog about it! I got 3000 followers! I’ll tell everyone that Phillip Theimer is a sick, lying freak who seduced and led me along so he could literally kill me! And I’ll tell my daddy to donate all the money you dirtbags get from him to animal shelters! I’ll call him right now!” Cheryl, breathlessly shouting at the top of her lungs right in Miriam’s face, produced a cellphone and shoved that right into Miriam’s face too. “I’ll make these rickety walls come right down on you if you think you can get away with hiding this!”

“Please– I wasn’t– I didn’t mean to–” Miriam, a grown woman, was almost in tears.

Cheryl continued to shout, at the top of her lungs, her voice bravely holding out.

“Minerva and Lyudmilla better leave this room with medals! Medals! You, and your cops, and your stupid department, you didn’t do shit to help me! I was nearly killed by a bunch of LARPers and a big ugly metal bull! KILLED! You didn’t do shit about it! I was nearly killed! A bunch of lunatics go to this school planning to kill innocent girls and you didn’t know, you didn’t do anything, who knows how many girls have been victims here?”

“Of course not– Our school– we pride ourselves– we’re very safe–”

Are you going to do something?” Cheryl put her face to Miriam’s, baring her teeth.

Miriam backed her office chair up to the wall behind her in fear.

Cheryl’s eyes watered, her nose ran, and her face was beet red. She was shaking.

The full force of everything that had happened to her, and of everything that could have happened to her, hit right there like a dam bursting. She had screamed out as much of it as she could, but now she was shivering, hugging herself, weeping openly, sobbing loud. Her knees shook. She looked to be in agony, unable to contain herself. Lyudmilla made to stand but Minerva shook her head and put out an arm to stop her. She had to be delicate.

Beatrix moved closer to the desk and took Cheryl by the shoulders, giving her someone to cry on. For once she looked almost like a responsible adult, comforting Cheryl.

“There, there.” Beatrix said.

Miriam Hirch, nearly weeping herself, glared daggers at Beatrix, who smiled in return.

“Miriam, I caught wind of what happened from the university police when they came to the Department last night. I predicted you’d handle this situation very poorly. I want to believe you’re just trying to get out of doing paperwork, because you are lazy. At any rate I felt that, out of everyone involved, this girl deserved to have her voice heard, and I wanted to make sure that she did.” She turned her head a little and winked at Minerva.

Minerva allowed herself a restrained smile back at Beatrix.

“Yes, very– very well.” Miriam stuttered.

“If I remember correctly, the von Schutzherr grants go directly to the Humanities, do they not? It’s twice the Theimer grant money too.” Beatrix mused aloud. “As someone whose research depends on things like that, I also felt my voice mattered too.”

Miriam sank atop her desk.

“I’ll– I’ll take care of things. It’s fine. Everyone please. Go.”

Beatrix led Cheryl away slowly, rubbing her back and wiping her tears, smiling at her.

Before she could be taken through the door, Lyudmilla turned around on the couch.

She shouted, “Cheryl! You’re really cool, you know?”

And Cheryl held a shaking thumbs up in response, before vanishing out the door.

With Beatrix and Cheryl gone there was a sudden silence.

It dropped between everyone like lead walls.

“Ms. Hirch, perhaps I should take this orb for safe-keeping.” Minerva finally said.

Miriam sighed. “Yes. Yes. Please leave.”

Nodding, Minerva quickly swiped the orb from Miriam’s desk and left the room.

Soon as the office was vacated Miriam slammed the door.

There was another sudden falling of silence. It was as if the world itself, having held its breath throughout that entire drama, could finally breathe and take stock in things.

Everything ended up working itself out somehow.

Out in the halls again, Minerva checked the time on her homunculus and sighed.

The National waited for nobody. Life, outside oneself, had to keep going.

“I’m gonna be so late for my office hours.” She groaned.

“You’re gonna hold office hours? After all this?”

Behind her, Lyudmilla Kholodova approached with a questioning expression.

She looked mightly disheveled, her blazer frayed and spotted, her hair messy, a distinct ashen pall over her otherwise fair skin. Probably owing to the smoke and the fire. Minerva wondered what was going through her head now. She didn’t look tired or shocked or vulnerable, like she had been in the demesne a few times. She seemed well.

Minerva turned fully to meet her. She recalled Lyudmilla’s heroics in the demesne.

This girl had potential, and some hidden depths to her. Minerva kinda liked her.

“Well, the students need my help whether or not I was nearly killed by a monster.”

Lyudmilla seemed amused by the answer.

“And whether or not your Department nearly betrayed you.”

“That’s not the student’s fault. They have a right to an education you know.”

“That’s dedication. I’m straight-up blowing the rest of class this week after this shit.”

Minerva grinned a little. “That’s honestly fair. I’d encourage you to show up though.”

“Yeah, you would do that, Professor.” Lyudmilla grinned back at her.

“It’s just Ms. Orizaga, please.” Minerva said.

Lyudmilla then reached into her blazer and pulled out a letter for Minerva.

“I got this in the mail. Just uh. I guess I want you to know, that I got it.”

Though she seemed conflicted at first, she made up her mind quickly.

Minerva took the letter and unfurled it. It was the notice of apprenticeship.

Officially signed by Miriam Hirch and dated about a day before Minerva was told.

“How do you feel about it?” Minerva asked.

“Well, I can’t say no now. This is too cool, you know?” Lyudmilla bent forward, her arms stretched behind her with the fingers interlocked, rocking. She had an air of mischief.

She spun her finger idly and one of the hair bobbles on her twin-tails spun with it.

“I won’t tell anyone you’re some kind of superhero if you teach me your tricks.”

Minerva sighed. What a little devil she had on her hands! She should’ve known.

“I’m not a superhero.” Minerva said. “I’m just a teaching assistant.”

“Yeah, and I’m just an innocent maid, never smoked a joint, never touched a boob.”

Lyudmilla stuck her tongue out at Minerva.

“You’ll find I’m far less impressive outside of a fire-rich demesne.”

“My standards are very, very low.” Lyudmilla said, cackling.

“You’re a handful.” Minerva said. “Listen, if you’re fine with this arrangement, then I’m glad. I know I promised I’d explain everything to you, and I will, but right now, I really need to work. So lets meet somewhere private later and we can discuss all of this.”

“Fine. But I’ll tag along for today anyway. No discussion necessary.”

Minerva nodded. “It’s gonna be boring you know. I plan to act like nothing happened.”

“Me too. It’s too early for me to have a big cry and scream like Cheryl did. I’m too icy for that. Anyway. I’m here at your service for both mundane and magical tasks, master.”

“Oh god no. There’s enough people who call me master. Just, Minerva, or something.”

Lyudmilla grinned. “Ah, yeah, how’s that subby dragon of yours doing, Professor?”

Nothing happened.” Minerva said dangerously.

“Ah fine, fine.” Lyudmilla replied cheerfully.

Together they got going to Minerva’s office.

 

At least, regardless of everything, her job always gave her something else to do.

Right now, the only world she knew or wanted was her students and a pile of papers.

She was the first Alwi magician of the National! She had to keep performance high.

“If I’m your apprentice, can I look at the quiz keys?” Lyudmilla asked.

“Yes you can. They’re all there in the textbook if you read it.” Minerva said.

Lyudmilla started to whistle intermittently. “I guess I should’ve expected that.”


That night, Minerva arrived at her home just off the edge of Lake Bratten and the Whispering Woods, feeling exhausted, and like the feelings she had been damming for the sake of the world were about to burst through the wall of her heart. Still, she made herself smile for the little girl at the front desk, and waved at her when she passed.

“Oh, Minnie!” Laksha called out. She looked sad. “Your girlfriend came in this morning looking a little, bad. Did something happen to her Minnie? Is she going to be okay?”

Minerva continued to smile. “She did a big heroic thing, Laksha. But she’ll be okay.”

“Wow! I’ll get her some meat sometime to thank her for being a hero.” Laksha said.

Her frown had immediately turned into a starry-eyed smile.

“Thank you. She’d love that. Good night, Laksha.”

Upstairs, Minerva practically fell through her front door. Using the back of her foot, she shut the door behind herself and practically crawled up to Vorra’s mound. Sitting atop the pile of magazines, again dressed only in one of Minerva’s ill-fitting button-downs, Vorra sat, looking out their window to the lake and the moonlit, cloudless night.

She turned her head over her shoulder and gazed fondly at her arriving partner.

Her tail wagged slowly and gently. She had bandaged her sides up, but there was damage to hidden things, like her wings, and her ribs, that would take time to heal inside.

“Milord, good to see you. This Academy ill deserves your tireless effort.”

“Yeah, it sucks, but it’s good to have on the resume, you know?”

“I do not, milord, but I am pleased that your efforts fulfill you.”

Minerva got herself up to Vorra and sat by her side. She kissed her on the cheek.

“How are you?”

“Milord, of course I am on the mend. I am a dragon. I am power itself.”

“It’s really been a day.”

“It has been a day, as you say, milord.”

Vorra rested her head on Minerva’s shoulder and vibrated, with a slight hissing purr.

Tears built up in Minerva’s eyes and feeling Vorra at her side caused them to spill.

“Vorra, Wyrm was a monster, wasn’t he? Am I a monster too?” Minerva asked.

She clutched her chest, where, in her deepest nightmares, she felt Wyrm exist.

Everything that she had seen and heard in Moloch’s demesne, all of the horror and power and hatred, seemed to fall upon her at that very moment. It hit harder than the craven cowardice of Miriam Hirch or the abject cruelty of Ajax. Both of those things were evil, but they existed outside of her as verifiable lies. Neither of them could say truthfully that Minerva was a monster, that she was abominable and inhuman. But then Moloch–

“I say milord, with the utmost certainty, that you are you, and whatever you desire.”

Vorra turned to Minerva and kissed her briefly on her lips.

“Wyrm would have never accepted me as a Queen because I was not born one.” She said, staring directly into Minerva’s eyes and centimeters away from her face. “Denounce me for my bias, but I prefer you as King.” She laughed gently. “I love you, Minerva.”

“I love you too.” Minerva said. Those kinds of sentimental things were a bit hard and almost felt embarrassing to say, but Minerva really felt it at that moment. It was not at all what she expected as a child, that she would be the beloved of a dragon staring at the moon from the National Academy just a day after containing the evil of a Tyrant.

“Minerva,” she was pointedly not saying ‘milord’, “You possess the bravery to transmute all that you once thought fundamental, and to struggle against that which you are told you are unfit to change. I admire that about you. It draws me to you. Truly, I believe you can become anything you desire. I believe even by desiring it alone, you will become it.”

Minerva felt fresh tears coming up, and she clung to Vorra with a smile. “Thank you.”

Vorra purred at her side. “I was discarded, alone, unwanted, without future. Now I am here. To me, that is the greatest portent signalling that anything is now possible.”

Whatever it was that lay ahead, surely a series of hardships; Minerva felt she could do it.

She had made it this far and changed so much. There would be more change coming.

All of those tyrannical things that had once chained her up — she had wounded them.

“God, what am I even going to say in my report to the Party. This is really a lot.”

“It is, as you say, a lot, milord.”


Bright blue waves filtered into the elevator through glass panes.

When the doors opened at the bottom floor, Miriam Hirsch walked through a hallway of glass, reinforced by titanium supports. She followed a long carpet to a dead end with a wide, unobstructed pane of glass with a view into the massive aquarium all around it.

“I requested an audience, headmaster.” Miriam said, her voice trembling.

All around her, a cold voice reverberated through the water and glass.

I am listening.

“Phillip Theimer has been taken into custody. The Theimer fund has pulled from the Academy. I thought you should be made aware. It’s– it’s rare for this to happen here.”

Theimer deserved his fate. He aided the heresy of summoning a Pretender God.

Miriam was surprised to hear the headmaster already knew.

Then again, the headmaster was a strong diviner. His water aura was massive.

All of the water around her was like a scrying glass. He could see her.

He could see through her.

And yet, it was in her nature to lie, to conceal, to conspire, and so, she did.

“Yes, headmaster. I felt compelled to seek your input. Our elite families are valuable–”

I am aware of what has happened. I am aware, that you thought to shield him of his crime. I am aware of your connection. I am aware of your small mindedness.”

Miriam flinched and drew back a step.

“I– I simply couldn’t believe such a thing could happen at our school.”

I care not about the the Iron Flags; I care not about politics. Summoning Pretender Gods is becoming quite a trend again among you. I care about that. It is a heresy.”

“Yes, headmaster.”

In the next instant the water outside the glass became obstructed.

In its place was a massive eye, more complicated than that of any human being.

Miriam nearly fainted from shock. The depth of that eye felt like it might suck her in.

You are all forgetting the purpose of humans to me. Call me by name, human.

Miriam choked up, nodding her head. “Yes, Great Lord Leviathan.”

Slowly the eye retreated from the glass, and became smaller, until it was clear that it was one of many along the side of a sleek serpentine head adorned with many-colored crests.

I desire to meet Minerva Orizaga. Teaching, is valuable. Learning, is valuable. Discovering, is valuable. As long as they remain valuable I will not interfere. Minerva Orizaga, might be valuable. I desire to confirm that.

Leviathan, the God of Water, surged forward again until his eye covered the glass.

Do not forget what is valuable to me. Do not confuse it for what you value.

Miriam, feeling suddenly the weight of the plutocratic kickbacks that got her into her position, that got her clothed, that got her respectability, bowed her head to Leviathan.

“Yes, headmaster, great lord.”


Story 1 — Lord of the Wildfire, END


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1.7: The Lord of the Wildfire

This scene contains violence, death and body horror.


Demesne: Where humans possess simple auras reacting to ambient and absorbed magic, wild Tyrants create vast, warped otherworlds of magic known as ‘Demesne’ that a Tyrant can project onto the material world to stake territorial claims. A Tyrant’s demesne warps reality into a shape suitable for the Tyrant’s preferred magical profile. In response, humans have historically developed many spells, strategies and equipment to Contain the demesne.


Before Minerva and Lyudmilla the statue seemed to bloat into a bubble of what seemed like liquid cement. Seams formed on its surface that oozed a slick, oily substance, vividly colored in the light of the wild flames around the platform. Minerva raised a hand in defense, sensing movement. From the seams, metallic digits burst through like the arms of an insect, breaching a cocoon. Clay sloughed off the mutating structure.

Once enough material was shed, there was a creature, its skin baking in the heat, large and misshapen, a bull-like head melded into its thick shoulders. Its attached arms were meaty, ending in clenched fists. There was a massive wound on its chest, dripping clay, and out from within it a series of metallic ribs and a large metal spine stretched to the ground like the legs and abdomen of a horrifying insect. Somewhere deep inside the churning, chittering mass of metal amid its clay-sloughing chest, was a heat source, like a pilot light. Thin trails of smoke wafted out from a red glow in the creature’s center.

“Wyrm!”

Now the voice was not booming from seemingly everywhere like a surround-sound system; Moloch’s challenge came from his physical mouth, on his corporeal head.

Somehow the sound disturbed Minerva more than before.

“I will rip the fire from your false body as you ripped it from mine.”

Moloch’s mouth made a wet, slapping sort of sound. It seemed to melt and solidify and melt more every instant, dripping globs of clay that hardened and burned onto its chest.

Everything was heating up. She only barely felt it, because of how she was.

Minerva did not answer to his provocation. She controlled her breathing. She felt her body reacting to the Demesne. Her chest was hot, and she felt Wyrm in the back of her head: its disdain, its hatred. Most of all, its hunger. In the presence of so much wild and uncontrolled ambient magic, she lost her cool. Anyone observing her closely would’ve seen her eyes, red with throbbing veins one seconds, and dark and collected the next. Dilated, weeping; focused and dry. It was a struggle against an atavistic other self.

Self.

Though she told Moloch otherwise, she feared some part of her was Wyrm indeed.

Minerva felt a hand at her back, and looked briefly over her shoulder to see Lyudmilla with her grimoire out, and her eyes steeled. She was acting calm, at least. Minerva had no experience with grimoires, but Lyudmilla survived Ajax. She could survive this.

“Miss Orizaga, please protect Cheryl.” She asked.

“Already on it.” Minerva said. “Vorra.”

Vorra nodded and muttered something under her breath.

Smoke briefly played over her lips, swirling with her speech.

Minerva glanced at the sacrificial poles around the edges of the platform and saw them disappear instantly, absorbed through the walls of the demesne in a puff of smoke.

Lyudmilla looked around in confusion.

“I have separated the children from the Demesne, milord.” Vorra said.

“Hear that, Lyudmilla?” Minerva said.

“Yes.” Lyudmilla replied, sighing with relief.

“Hang in there.” Minerva said. “Containment strategy is way too complicated for an introductory course, but you can get behind the basic principle: surviving.”

In truth, Minerva herself was untested at containment, but she, too, could act calm.

She had known since she was young that she would confront a Tyrant in the future.

“Did you install that thing I gave you.” Minerva asked.

Lyudmilla silently raised her hand. Minerva saw the memory card in her homunculus.

“We’ll get through this together.” Minerva said. “Just watch your casting. Limiter’s off.”

Lyudmilla moved closer to Minerva, and muttered near her head.

“Miss Orizaga, I was–” She hestiated, “when I was younger, I was sworn to an oath–”

Minerva felt her heart rise briefly.

“Don’t use it.” She cut in immediately.

She felt Lyudmilla tremble behind her, confidence suddenly shaken.

She raised her voice.

“Are you for real? Listen, I can–”

In front of them Moloch sneered, and the fire in his chest burnt brightly for an instant.

Smoke poured out from his back and he laughed at them.

His eyes were glassy and pale. He looked as if he was staring past them.

“Don’t debate this here.” Minerva warned. “I need your help. He’s weakened.”

She could almost imagine Lyudmilla’s stunned expression.

But she had to keep her eyes forward now. It was about to start soon.

Moloch raised, with difficulty, one of his arms. It looked as if it weighed a ton.

He had much less difficulty plunging it into his own chest.

Warning, Entity temperature rising sharply. Fire magic channeled.”

Minerva’s homunculus gave a sudden warning, as processed by the illegal M.A.G.E. military spellcasting system installed on it. On the accompanying headpiece, an alternate reality display in front of her eyes overlayed the creature with a temperature gradient that saw its chest turning sharply redder, and the arm inside burning as much.

His aura was very thick; he had focused it around him. She would have a hard time penetrating his defenses with any sort of magic until he opened himself up to it.

She had to respond to an attack; he’d be vulnerable then.

“Don’t do anything yet.” Minerva whispered.

Lyudmilla nodded behind her.

“Wyrm!”

When Moloch pulled his arm free of his own body, it was red, covered in leathery skin, and seemed much easier for him to move. Flames danced around his fingers and nails.

“Wyrm, you come to me in this body, full of delicious skin and oil and hair that burns. You’ve no advantage here! No scales to block me, no wings to deflect my wrath!”

Around his one newly-rejuvenated arm the flames grew denser and collected into orbs.

“Milord!” Vorra warned.

Moloch’s fingers wriggled and the orbs went flying in different directions.

“Scatter!” Minerva shouted, pushing Lyudmilla back and stepping forward.

Lyudmilla responded swiftly. She made a pulling motion on the pages of her grimoire and rapidly blurted out the words to the lesser-known Kabukov’s Cossack’s Flight; this obscure spell coupled with the homunculi limiter being removed caused Lyudmilla to blow herself skyward without control, spinning out and flying away from the platform.

It was enough; the fireball meant for her passed just under legs and careened away.

Two more swerved around Minerva and Vorra like circling hyenas.

Lyudmilla’s was a feint. Moloch grinned, clearly controlling the latter two directly.

“Milord!”

Both orbs moved closer, and then pivoted away at sharp angles before driving back in.

Minerva made to move and deflect the magic; but Vorra leaped in front of her.

She sprouted a massive wing that wrapped around the bewildered teacher.

Inside the wing Minerva couldn’t do magic without risking Vorra’s safety; and Vorra, standing Sentinel a few meters away, had put herself in an awful position now.

“Milord, this subservient flesh stands in your defense.” She declared.

“Vorra, no! They’re–”

Minerva felt a brief wave of heat wash over her as the fireballs collided with Vorra.

Wrapped in the wing, she saw two terrible flashes and a shadow standing before her.

Slowly the wing unwrapped and dropped Minerva on the floor.

Vorra fell to one knee, struggling to stand. Her other wing stretched front of her body, smoking. It too fell, wilting before her like a dying flower and crumpling on the floor.

It had been pierced by two metal balls, both of which rolled off Vorra’s body to the floor.

One massive bruise on her exposed shoulder and neck attested to the impact.

Vorra’s sweater covered up the other wound, this one to her rib and flank.

Behind them, the third bullet had smashed a dent into the edge of the metal platform.

“Damnable cheat.” Vorra cursed, visibly in agony. “Blackguard. Hid bullets in them.”

“This is why I said scatter!” Minerva shouted, nearly in tears.

Had she not trusted in Vorra’s constitution she would have been beside herself with grief.

“Kilnlings, collect the dragon concubine, she shall be fuel!” Moloch shouted.

Around Moloch the skeletal metal creatures became excited.

They moved with a suddenness that shocked Minerva.

A dozen of them once holding court around the Tyrant came to life and pounced.

Vorra was well aware of them, but she winced and wobbled trying to move.

Minerva raised her wand–

Before her eyes the AR display showed Moloch’s legs heating up.

That same suddeness was not exclusively to his minions.

Moloch joined the charge, cutting the distance as if propelled by a jet.

In that instant Minerva knew not who to save or how.

Kilnlings jumping on Vorra; Moloch, his arm reared back for a swing at her.

Her brain froze, an infinity of fear colliding with a primal voice screaming at her to devour the enemy in front of her, no matter the cost to her or to those dear to her.

“I’m coming!”

Lyudmilla Kholodova’s words reached Minerva at the precise, final second.

Minerva warped the floor in front of her for defense.

Wordlessly and without motion she raised a wall of metal that Moloch’s arm half-melted through and became trapped in, his glowing hot claws inches from Minerva’s cheek. His body came smashing down against it, and his limbs thrashed atop its surface.

In that very same second Lyudmilla dove down, snatched Vorra and leaped again.

That dozen Kilnlings so sure to kill her lover instead crashed together in a broken heap.

“I’ve got her! Do what you have to!” Lyudmilla shouted from the air.

Somehow that girl was really holding her own. Minerva had to wonder about her.

Still, she was relieved momentarily. She’d have to talk sternly with Vorra about all this.

“Wyrm!”

Moloch pounded his free, clay-like arm into the metal with horrifying force, denting it.

Minerva thought it time to display some uncharacteristic swiftness of her own.

She rolled out from behind her shield and in the same sweeping motion she dragged on the metal. Her motions were accompanied by a red glow and a vacuum pull, and the metal shield she had raised from the platform melted into a white-hot bubble of goo that she suspended in the air before her, held in a tenuous balance between hand and wand.

Seconds later Moloch realized what had happened and he let out a massive roar.

He stared down in disbelief at the gory stump left of his renewed, good arm.

“Wyrm!” He shouted, “This magic! This magic!”

Minerva had pulled his arm in with the metal as she tore away from her shield.

“It looks better on me.” She said cheekily.

 

Moloch blinked, his open, gaping mouth slowly closing itself as clay melted off it.

M.A.G.E read Moloch’s aura dispersing. A Tyrant was a thick, dense concentration of magic held together by a sharp, focused will and intellect. A Tyrant at the height of its power looked like it wanted to: its ideal conception based on the magic it embodied. Moloch was a remnant, kept alive by its legendary rage and apparently little else.

She had seen Tyrants at their peak before. She had seen them brought low too.

To prevent the repeat of that horrible massacre, Minerva knew this day would come.

Minerva would end him.

Throughout history humans challenged Tyrants. There were all kinds of myths, all manner of ways; magic items, special spells, rituals, even environments designed to stop or trap them. Minerva knew Containment, the modern, militarized paradigm.

She challenged a Tyrant in its demesne and now she would prevent its spread.

Minerva pushed one hand closer to the orb of smelt and spun her wand around it.

She blinked, and the hot goo became a solid metal orb once more. Such a spell would have spent her, normally. Magic took a lot out of a human body, it drained stamina, it taxed muscles and brains alike, especially when affecting high volumes of material or large objects like the orb of metal. However, Wyrm luxuriated in the fire magic of the Demesne, and unbidden but not unwanted, her body had been absorbing some bit by bit.

Some of Wyrm’s lust for violence rubbed on her for a second too.

Grinning viciously, she flicked her wand and launched the ball at Moloch.

It struck him dead center like a massive cueball.

Flailing his arms and legs, Moloch bounced and skidded brutally along the ground.

Moments later Moloch smashed into the pile of kilnlings and sent his supplicants flying every which way in pieces, chunks of metal ribs and claws sticking to the soft, melting clay parts of his body as he rolled and thrashed and bounced across the platform.

Pieces of clay and skin and bits of metal shed from him as he crashed up and down.

Moloch screamed and raged impotently as it tumbled off the edge into the fiery pit.

His screams began to crescendo despite the distance, but then finally died down.

Minerva turned her head around, scanning the Demesne for signs of magic.

At that moment, Lyudmilla finally dropped from the sky, landing on her feet.

In her arms, she carried Vorra like a princess — a struggling, ungrateful princess.

“Unhand me, peon!” She said. “This skin is for milord’s touch exclusively! Put me down!”

Lyudmilla unceremoniously dropped Vorra onto the ground.

“Here’s this thing, I guess.” Lyudmilla said, a look of exasperation on the student’s face.

She twirled her hair bobbles around while examining the surroundings.

“Is it gone?” She asked warily.

“Maybe.” Minerva said. She was still scanning the auras.

“I can’t believe this limiter stuff. I was flying!” Lyudmilla said, looking around herself.

“That’s not just your homunculus being unbound. It’s because of the demesne too.”

“So what will my magic look like outside?”

Minerva raised her hand. She saw something on the edges of the demesne.

There was a brief silence just as briefly broken.

Warning, demesne temperatures rising sharply.”

Lyudmilla stood bolt upright with shock; Minerva grit her teeth.

Around them, the “walls” of the demesne flared up, great columns of fire superimposed over the fleeting image of the forest outside the demesne. They thickened and burned and spread until the fire seemed to consume all of the outside world, creating a dimension of endless red and orange flames dancing around the isolated metal platform.

“Oh no, the forest! Cheryl!” Lyudmilla shouted, hands to her chest with fear.

“It’s just the demesne! If we stop Moloch it won’t spread.” Minerva cautioned.

Around them, that deep, booming, omni-directional laughter sounded again.

Wyrm.”

It sent a chill down her spine. All around her the aura thickened.

Somehow its power was increasing.

“Vorra, leave the demesne now.” Minerva said.

“Yes milord.” Vorra said sadly. “I’ve disgraced myself.”

She coughed, and spat a fire that expanded into a cloud of smoke around her.

Her shape sailed on the hot wind through the demesne walls and out of their sight.

Minerva sighed with relief. Vorra at least would be safe.

At her side, Lyudmilla was stunned to silence, terrified; she was sweating, shaking.

“I’ll need your help, Lyudmilla. I’m sorry. Please be strong.” Minerva said.

She was a truly terrible teacher, but this was what things had come to.

Lyudmilla nodded, but she was breathing very harshly.

Around them the fires reached a fever pitch.

Then, gas began to creep up from below the platform. Thick, awful smog.

Mechanical limbs reached up into the sky from within the fire.

Indistinct and segmented, bolted together with gears and drive belts.

Unholy machinery began to pull something massive as if from hell itself.

Two enormous claws grabbed hold of the platform’s edge and pushed up.

An indistinct hulk at first, when the massive machine rising before them started to untangle itself from its own supporting cranes and conveyors, they could see its arms, its rib-cage, its horned cranium, long and beak-like with a bare jaw and empty sockets. Like a cow skull stripped of any flesh; but it was all metal. Moloch had risen in a new form, its body massive, and driven by gears. Gas pipes ran over his form like exposed sinews, all attached to the smoking, burning hole in its center, still guarded by limb-like ribs.

Minerva was reminded of an animatronic animal, stripped of its outer covering.

Held up by chains and belts and cranes attached to its back, it floated before them in a sky of fire, the platform seeming so small when compared to the Tyrant it served.

Moloch’s jaw slowly unhinged. Minerva could see the gears struggling to move it.

Wyrm, your short-sighted disdain for humanity and their metal will be your undoing. You stole the fire and left behind the hearth. Now you will burn in it!


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1.6: The Trough of Kindling

This chapter contains strong language, violence and xenophobia.


“Awaken for your feast, Lord Moloch!”

Behind Centurion Ajax the eyes of the impostor statue glowed a fierce red, and the air around the clearing began to suck into the burning hearth in its gut. On the Centurion’s hand the red orb flashed with a swirl of red and orange that seemed to project from it, brighter and brighter each time until the flashes became blinding, until they swept away every shadow from every crevice and turned the world an annihilating crimson.

Lyudmilla Kholodova had her senses burned clean of the world she knew.

She felt a brief, terrifying instant of pain, as if she had brushed against burning metal.

Slowly her hearing returned. She heard screams and the clanking of metal.

She heard a whistling discharge of gas, and she smelled smoke and charcoal with it.

Her skin sensed distant fire all around her, the oppressive pressure of dry, ambient heat.

Though open all the while her eyes had been dead for what seemed like minutes.

When the blinding light slowly faded to reveal the surroundings, she saw a red world.

Overhead the sky had turn dull and red, thickly clouded, like a stormy dusk. She thought she saw something moving in the distance all around them, like mechanisms shrouded in thin smoke, but she could also make out the trees from the forest. Smoke billowed gently from stacks sticking out the sides. Everything was suspended a few meters in the air, she could tell by where the trees were. She believed she was actually standing atop a flat, gridded metal plane with its edges curled slightly upward. This platform covered the area of the woodland clearing around the statue and over a dozen meters more all around them. A brown patina had tarnished much of it along with pools of fouled oil.

“No! Let me go!”

Milla heard Amber and Jennifer and Cheryl screaming and she cast eyes around the platform in a panic. She found them suspended atop spokes extending from the rim of the platform, chained up to poles. Skeletal-looking machines looked on at them, each seeming as if built out of all the sharpest scrap left after a tractor burned down. Several of these creatures were in the process of hanging up Phillip as Milla caught sight of them.

She did not care what they did to him; but she felt desperation build for the rest.

It didn’t matter where she was now; her surroundings disappeared again and she focused on the terror she felt about the fate of her friends. She produced her grimoire.

“Cheryl!” Milla shouted, angry to see her friend strung up, struggling against chains.

Cheryl kicked and wiggled and shook her raised arms. “Milla! Help me!” She cried.

“I’ll get you down–”

Milla heard clanking behind her.

Jets of flame lit up the background and a shadow extended past her–

A figure looming with arms outstretched, ready to pounce.

Over her shoulder she saw one of the creatures.

It moved like a stop motion figurine, like something fake and unreal. No parts of it seemed properly jointed, none of it seemed to move in a way that produced momentum, just arms swinging and legs bending without logic. It was a mishmash of sharp shapes ending in what looked like hearth shovels and tongs, with a red, cracked-glass shape roughly where eyes would be on its spike-like “head.” If she had to give it a shape, she would have likened it to the skeleton of a cow or a bull, with horns and hooves.

Its hollowed out ribs seemed caked in gristle and bone.

Was it trying to drag her to the hearth?

Milla swiped her hands over her grimoire and struck the creature with a bolt.

It jerked upright, briefly pausing, before bouncing away like a character ragdolling in a video game. Propelled by magnetic force, it crashed into its fellows around Phillip’s pole and bowled all of them clear off the platform, gyrating helplessly as they fell away.

Milla turned to Cheryl’s platform, and ensorcelled one of the creatures there as well.

As if billiard balls struck all together, the machines went flying in every direction.

“I’m coming Cheryl!” She shouted, having bought her friend some time.

She grinned to herself then, feeling confident, until she heard that fake voice again.

“You’re up? You don’t know when to quit.”

From somewhere up above, Centurion Ajax landed meters away from Milla.

He drew his polearm and instantly launched a savage horizontal swing.

Again his weapon seemed to warp and stretch beyond its limits to reach her.

Milla brought up her grimoire to defend against it, reciting a metal reinforcing spell.

The Centurion’s pole struck the cover of her book and bounced off it.

Though she somehow kept her skull intact, much of the force of the blow still transferred into her body, and Milla nearly fell on her side, her arms shaking from the exertion. She felt like she deflected a cannonball with the backs of her hands, like some kind of circus attraction. Had she not reinforced the binding magically she would have probably died.

Nonetheless she stayed upright and defiant.

“Hmm. You’re proving uncannily stubborn for a Rus degenerate. Child soldier, maybe?”

He seemed to muse to himself more than he engaged her. Like she was nothing to him.

Ajax withdrew his pole and raised a hand at Milla.

She could not tell what he was doing; he was not speaking and made no gestures.

His ornate homunculus was making noises, but all homunculi made all kinds of noises when someone was casting a spell, hers included. It faded into the background, it was nothing, it couldn’t be read by anybody. Without reading his lips or hearing him incant or understanding his gestures she had no way of knowing what he was casting at her.

Motes of magical energy briefly collected on his fingers as if from nowhere.

A blue bolt launched toward Milla and she could not defend against it in time.

She raised her book, but not quickly enough; she felt the bolt strike her like a sling bullet.

Her head cocked back and she nearly fell, but she managed to push forward and stand her ground at the last second, preventing herself from dropping. Right under the purple streak in her bangs she felt a sharp pain where the bolt struck her in the forehead.

Milla felt a little woozy, and her vision wavered, but she did not let herself drop.

Once more she remained standing, affected but mostly upright.

“How? You should be out cold.” Ajax said. “Lord Moloch will have to dine on one less.”

His voice was still so dismissive. Milla felt furious, but she was helpless, wavering.

Around the Centurion’s hand the motes of energy started to darken. He gestured wildly.

Milla was sure this one was lethal, but she could not make herself move to avoid it.

She saw a bolt of black lightning burst from Ajax’s hand toward her.

Milla stared at it with resignation, her skin tingling for an instant.

She blinked and the bolt suddenly deflected skyward, as if batted away.

Ajax disappeared, and she saw instead the back of a hooded beige coat, and a pair of dress pants. A figure with black, messy hair in a ponytail stood in front of her.

She could tell by the color of the skin on the back of her neck.

“Professor Orizaga!” Milla called out.

“I’m not a professor.”

Minerva looked over her shoulder briefly, smiling. “I’m just a teaching assistant.”

Milla felt a driving need to look tough in the face of everything, and brought up her grimoire, and she took two labored, agonizing steps to stand beside Minerva.

“He’s trouble.” was all she could get herself to say in the face of all this madness.

“I can tell.” Minerva replied.

Across from them Ajax’s eyes lit up red behind the dragon-shaped helmet.

“The Alwi.” He said, disdainfully. “Of all the mongrels, the degenerates; the Queen.”

“You flatter me, but I don’t even control my own classroom in this school.” Minerva said.

Ajax raised his hand again and with much greater alacrity he fired a second bolt.

Minerva swung her wand at it and lobbed it away the same as before.

Milla saw a flash as it crashed harmlessly into the ground off the corner of her eyes.

Furious, Ajax cried out and swung his polearm, twisting it into whip-like flexibility.

“Watch out!” Milla shouted, ducking her head.

Minerva mumbled something under her breath.

Before it could reach them, the polearm started to melt in mid-air.

At Milla’s feet, a chunk of gelatinous slag ended up where the pole might have crashed.

Ajax dropped the handle before it could melt right in his hand.

Minerva scratched her hair with her free hand, unimpressed.

“I’m not a fan of your edgy cosplay and I’m tired of your little temper tantrums, kid. I’m going to find out who you are, then you and whoever your rich father is will be really embarrassed by all of this. That’s the best scenario. I can also just kill you stone dead.”

She lifted her wand at Ajax, who stood seemingly speechless before her.

“So you can stop all this right now, and take off your helmet, or I’ll take it off.”

Ajax quickly lifted with his other hand the red orb he had taken from the statue.

“Beseeching with furious reverence I set myself to stoke the wild flames of the Lord–”

“Idiot! Vorra, now!” Minerva called out.

Milla blinked.

One moment Ajax was chanting whatever he was–

Then a great shadow swooped down at him faster than her eyes could follow.

Her mind registered it as a punch, but she felt like Ajax had been dive bombed by some giant beast. He went flying from the blow, hitting the ground twice and thrice and launching off the platform, screaming incoherently. Where he once stood, there was now a handsome woman, dark-haired and dark-skinned, somewhat like Minerva; slender, with lean, exposed legs, a coy expression on her face. She was dressed in a sweater.

“Milord, I fear I struck too true. It appears the orb fell with him.” She said.

“It’s fine.” Minerva replied. “We’ll pick him back up.”

Milla looked between “Vorra” and Minerva quizzically.

Milord?

She shook her head, trying to right her own thoughts.

“Teacher, please help Cheryl, and those girls, they’re all trapped.” Milla labored to say.

She tried to point at the poles, but Minerva wasn’t looking anymore.

She was fixated on the statue standing opposite them, its gut open and burning.

Vorra bared gritted teeth, staring furiously at it. Her eyes turned feral.

Milla noticed Minerva’s eyes seemed to redden and dilate as well.

“Milord, the pretender god wakes.”

Minerva raised a hand out in defense of Milla.

Suddenly the hearth in the middle of the statue blew a jet of flame their way.

Vorra stood in it as if nothing was wrong, while the fires redirected around Minerva.

Had she deflected them the same as she had Ajax’s bolts?

All around them, the environment was changing.

Every smokestack billowed thicker, darker smoke.

All around them the sky turned redder.

Flashes and bangs went off inside the smoke clouds.

All of the remaining steel creatures, that had been standing docile around the captives in the poles, seemed to return to life. Like the many-pronged mouths of some vile insect their rib cages began to clap together, producing sparks that suddenly lit their chests aflame, setting ablaze the oil and coal and gristle and crud that was collected there.

Milla heard a spine-chilling laughter, deep and booming.

Wyrm!

Inside the hearth in the statue’s stomach the fire seemed to burn ever brighter.

Bastard! Thief! Kinslayer!

Minerva stood fast in front of the fire, beads of sweat forming on her forehead.

“I’m not who you seem to think I am.” She said calmly.

I sense you!” replied the incensed voice. “I sense the aura you stole from me! I smell the everburning flame that you took! I feel the essence that was rightfully mine!

Vorra hopped back from the statue and landed near Minerva.

“Milord, I am prepared to give my life. Command me as your own body.” She said.

“Oh god. Calm down.” Minerva sighed.

She looked over her shoulder. Milla could not understand what was happening.

“Kholodova, do exactly as I say whenever I say anything and don’t ask questions.”

Minerva put down the arm guarding Milla and raised the other to adjust her glasses.

She heard a little robot-like voice speaking as if from the glasses out.

Concentration of fire and metal-type energy in the Demesne is reaching saturation point.”

Ahead of them the statue started to bloat and bubble as if melting into a new form.

Do not ignore me, Wyrm! Coward! Usurper! Beast!

“M.A.G.E, commencing containment.” Minerva said.

Milla saw Minerva’s glasses light up just briefly, and her homunculus lit up as well.

She thrust something into Milla’s hand. It was a red memory card.

“Put that in your homunculus to override the limiter, now.” Minerva said.

Milla fumbled with the card but jammed it into the wristband slot on her homunculus.

“Stay behind me. I’ll get you all through this.” Minerva said.

There was a little trembling in her voice at the end there.

Wyrm! You and these morsels will burn in my trough of kindling!

Several of the metal monsters arranged themselves around the statue in supplication.

Something started to take shape there, and it was furious.

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